Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – the youngest member of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty – took on a formal leadership role in the main opposition Congress Party Wednesday, injecting a burst of enthusiasm among its ranks as the country gears up for general elections.
Vadra has often campaigned for the party, which is headed by her brother, Rahul. But until now, she has steered clear of an official role, ceding the limelight to her sibling, who will lead Congress as it prepares to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the coming months.
The 47-year-old mother of two has been put in charge of Congress’ election campaign in a critical battleground: the eastern half of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and politically most significant state, with a population of some 200 million people.
Descended from three former prime ministers – including Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first leader – Vadra has long been seen as a potential political leader, with many likening her appearance and campaign style to those of her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She is married to businessman Robert Vadra.
In a tweet announcing multiple appointments, the Congress Party said: “We’re fired up and ready to go.”
With national elections due to kick off in April, political activity has rocketed in the country. Fresh from a resounding victory in three state elections last year, Congress is pushing to win back some of its lost glory.
Praising his sister, Rahul Gandhi insisted that Congress would not fight the upcoming elections on a back foot and said he had “full faith” that Priyanka would work hard.
“We will give you a new direction. I am speaking to the youth of Uttar Pradesh. We want to complete a new dream with you. That is our goal, this is a good step and the BJP is a little worried,” he added. Uttar Pradesh is home to the largest number of seats in the upcoming election.
In a tweet, political commentator and veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta said: “The story isn’t just that Priyanka Gandhi is formally entering politics. It is that she has chosen the one region most tough for Congress… This kind of go-for-broke risk-taking is uncharacteristic of Cong/Gandhi family.”
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party dismissed the latest appointment as another move in dynastic politics. “Congress party, which calls itself Indian National Congress is actually a family party. The Congress party has announced the failure of its current president, Rahul Gandhi. That Rahul Gandhi has failed and that is why they are bringing Priyanka Gandhi – who is a member of his family – and whose support is needed,” Sambit Patra, national spokesperson for the BJP, told local reporters.
Opposition parties come together
Congress was the first party of government after Indian independence from British colonial rule in 1947, and it dominated the political scene for decades.
But the last national election in 2014 changed the tone of Indian politics. The Modi-led BJP swept through the country on a large mandate and became the first party to govern with an outright majority since 1984. The BJP has since swept state elections in more than a dozen states – dominating a landscape where three decades ago, it was almost nonexistent.
The BJP’s overwhelming rise has led to regional and national opposition parties coming together in an act of unity. Last week, two dozen leaders joined forces at a rally in West Bengal to criticize the direction the country has taken under Modi, vowing to put an end to his dominance.
Critics of Modi’s premiership point to a continuing employment crisis, a faltering agricultural economy and frequent outbreaks of communal violence against minorities and people of lower castes.
“It’s the beginning to an end of arrogance, intolerance, inequity and injustice,” said Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and leader of the regional Trinamool Congress (which isn’t related to the Congress Party) at the rally.
Although much of the shine has come off the BJP since 2014, Congress often comes under fire for its reliance on a single dynasty, and Modi has repeatedly ridiculed the party for keeping it in the family.
“New kings are being born and dynasty politics is flourishing. Family politics is flourishing. Entire parties are operating under dynasty politics,” said Modi at an election rally in Hyderabad last year.