Is Priyanka playing by the male rulebook?


Is Priyanka playing by the male rulebook?

The younger Nehru-Gandhi scion was often brought in to lend a hand for campaigning, but never afforded any real opportunity to shine in public life.

By Suresh Pattali (Writing on the Wall)

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Published: Sun 27 Jan 2019, 8:05 PM

Last updated: Sun 27 Jan 2019, 11:45 PM

We Indians, including yours truly, are happily ensconced in patriarchy. And women have been equal partners in the crime of gender inequality since time immemorial.
My daughter paid a paltry $10 as school fees while I paid through the nose to an American school for my son.
"Isn't it because I am a girl that I was sent to a local institution while your son studied in an international school," she quizzed me as she helped herself out of the familial cocoon.
"I couldn't afford," I said, with a shameless grim across my face.
"So, why did you pick your son, not me?" she probed. I had no answer.
"When he passed MBBS, you gifted him an expensive bike. And for me, nothing. I never owned a laptop."
Doesn't this exchange sound familiar? This plays out in most families in India, rich or poor. Underneath the veneer of reforms and renaissance, ours is still a conservative society that strongly believes in son preference. Females are first compelled to make way for their brothers and once married, interests of their partners take precedence. Their voices are suppressed, dreams are crushed because tradition dictates a son carry on with the business of dynasty.
The story of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the youngest member of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, could hardly be different. Priyanka was supposedly a victim of elite patriarchy. Like every Indian mother, Priyanka's mother Sonia Gandhi, though originally from Italy, wanted her son to lead the dynasty left behind by the Nehru scions. Sonia took him under her wings, with Manmohan Singh safekeeping the top job until she thought he had come of age to lead the party and the nation. Priyanka faded into the oblivion under the guise she wasn't cut out for politics.
Whenever the goings got tough for the Congress on the hustings, she was brought in from the cold to lend a hand. But her guest appearances as a saviour were restricted to two family constituencies in Uttar Pradesh: Sonia's Raebareli and Rahul's Amethi. Priyanka spreading her wings would have meant disaster for the big plan Sonia supposedly had for her son. Despite some Congress veterans' claim Indira had expressed her desire in 1984 to let her granddaughter carry forward the family legacy, Priyanka parroted that she had no interest.
But cries like Priyanka lao, Congress bachao (Bring Priyanka, save Congress), reviving the spectre of the Indira lao, Congress bachao slogan raised by the Congress over the failure of the Janata Dal government in 1979, reverberated across the country after every party debacle over the last decade. But Sonia stayed stone-faced.
It's the presence and appearance comparable to her grandmother that made Priyanka a darling of Congressmen. Most leaders and articles welcoming Priyanka's appointment as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh East, ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha elections, talked of her beauty, charisma, and a touch of gray and grace as a sure fire vote-getter. But such optics alone wouldn't make her another Indira, the country's longest-serving prime minister who left a mark with her decisive leadership and tough decisions that redefined the geopolitics of South Asia, including creation of Bangladesh and the first nuclear test at Pokhran.
I used to be an Indira hater, but have moved on to become one of her admirers - 35 years after her assassination - not because of the ideology she believed in, but in hindsight I thought she was the best bureaucrat and administrator India ever produced. No, I haven't forgotten the dark age of emergency she imposed on us.
I don't think any leader, let alone Priyanka, can match the formidable stature of Indira, who Singapore's iron man Lee Kuan Yew said had "steel that would match any Kremlin leader".
"She was feminine but there was nothing soft about her. She was a more determined and ruthless political leader than Margaret Thatcher, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, or Benazir Bhutto."
So, let's stop talking about Priyanka and Indira in the same breath. It's political sacrilege. Let her take smaller steps and learn how to stand on her own feet in the dog-eat-dog world of politics. Stepping into Indira's shoes can wait till she comes of age as a leader who knows the pulse of the people. The feminists might be in a hurry to see a woman back at the helm, but it isn't easy in a nation where women represent just about 12 per cent of the lower house. In the case of Indira, women's empowerment was served on a platter as Nehru had no male offspring. Priyanka isn't that lucky.
By now, an average reader should know why Priyanka has been roped in again. She's the "surprise in store" which Rahul hinted at in reaction to the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav alliance formed in Uttar Pradesh recently. It's a given that the Congress wouldn't be able to break into the combine's Dalit-Muslim-Backward Class voter base. The Congress has no option other than make inroads into the Bharatiya Janata Party's upper caste voter base. And that's exactly what Priyanka's mission impossible in Uttar Pradesh is.
Priyanka's political baptism next week in the Ganges, the most sacred river to the Hindus, is a dare to the BJP that the Congress is ready to throw its Hindutva hat in the ring. Will she contest from Raebareli or will she take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi is what people are looking forward to. Priyanka is also the party's ultimate gender weapon against the other two women who are a thorn in her brother's flesh: Mayawati and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who are keen on laying claim to the prime ministerial job in case of an anti-BJP wave. Priyanka is a thorn to remove a thorn.
At a time when opinion polls are predicting a clear mandate for the Congress, Priyanka's appointment is seen ill timed as it gives away the impression that even a Rahul 2.0 wouldn't be able to manage the show alone. Let's leave it to the Congress to decide in which hands the party's future is safe. It's none of our business. But the onus is certainly on the brother and sister to shake off the age-old stigma that for the Congress, their family is the party. It should be the other way around.
Even in this do-or-die battle, patriarchy seems to be at play. Will Priyanka be confined to a regional role or will she and Rahul be comrades-in-arms in a dispensation at the centre? "By appointing Priyanka general secretary in Uttar Pradesh, we have paved the way for a Congress chief minister," says Rahul. Did he say, keep off Delhi, darling sis?

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