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INDIA POLLS: Priyanka Gandhi infuses new energy into Congress

Publication Date : 05-05-2014


Wearing a yellow handwoven cotton sari, her short curls flecked with flower petals that were showered on her as a welcome, Priyanka Gandhi mixed effortlessly with villagers as she campaigned for her elder brother Rahul, 43, in the family borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

The 42-year-old mother of two giggled with women in Poore Parwane village, one of two dozen stops last Friday, as she joked that she had not come to ask for their votes.

A little later, Gandhi, with her hands on her hips, struck a serious note. She evoked the family name and memories of her fallen grandmother Indira and father Rajiv. "I have come to listen. My family members have given their lives for the country. So I have to work for the people who have supported them. I need to complete their work," she said, reminiscing about how as a little girl she used to come to the constituency with her father.

"You just keep giving us your love."

The younger of the famous Gandhi siblings, great-grandchildren of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, comes from the country's most powerful political dynasty, but her life has been punctuated by personal tragedy.

She is always protected in public by dozens of men from the elite Special Protection Group.

Her grandmother was the sitting prime minister when assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984 when Priyanka was only 12.

She was 19 when a suicide bomber took the life of her father while he was on the campaign trail in the election of 1991 - all that was left at the Tamil Nadu election ground to identify his remains were his shoes.

Her Italian-born mother, Sonia, formally entered politics six years after her husband's assassination to safeguard the Gandhi- Nehru legacy, and subsequently led the party to two decisive victories.

Now her brother and the vice- president of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, is taking over the reins of the party at a time when its popularity is at its lowest.

Predictions are that this will be the party's worst electoral performance in recent years.

Though Priyanka Gandhi has kept away from active politics, many within the party say it is her destiny, particularly with the elder brother yet to make a decisive mark in politics.

Often compared to Indira - a dynamic and strong personality - in looks and style, Gandhi is more outgoing and engaging than her reserved brother.

Those who know her say she is organised, has the ability to get things done and has a good memory for names, recognising people in her brother's and mother's constituencies of Amethi and neighbouring Rae Bareli.

In the villages of these two constituencies, young boys often call her "bhaiyaji", a respectful version of brother - a quirk apparently started by a security official and which has stuck.

Where Rahul is always serious and earnest, peppering a speech with philosophy and management concepts, she is light and effervescent, breaking it down for people and in fluent Hindi.

"We are bringing a cargo terminal to Amethi. This means bigger planes will land," she explained in Hindi to the villagers. "And this means what you produce on your land will be flown out to different parts of the country."

She was a student of Modern School, a co-ed school in Delhi, and the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a girls' school also in Delhi. She has a degree in psychology.

She was active in state-level elections in 2012 and, though her political engagement has been confined to campaigning for her mother and brother, she has been more combative this time round, infusing the Congress campaign with new energy. Taking on Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, she accused him of only wanting political power.

Part of her aggression stems from a campaign launched by the BJP against her husband Robert Vadra, in which it called him a "magician" for multiplying his wealth seemingly out of nowhere - a charge he denies.

According to the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party, he is worth 3 billion rupees (US$49 million).

Gandhi, according to reports, hit it off with Vadra at a party in Delhi and married him in 1997. They have two children: Miraya, 11, and Rehan, 13.

While the charges against her husband - who started out exporting costume jewellery and is now in the real estate business - are proving to be a drawback, some Congress members are thrilled with her campaign rhetoric.

"She would have soared if it was not for the allegations against the husband," said one person in the Congress who did not want to be identified. "Still, she has brought hope to the party."

Yet she remains politically untested. Even in Amethi there is open criticism of the Gandhis for not improving road infrastructure, irrigation and the supply of electricity.

Although she has been campaigning extensively, even Congress workers fear Gandhi's winning margin is going to be slim, particularly with Modi set to campaign on their home turf today.

"There is anger among people because work hasn't happened. Things have not improved," said Krishna Kumar, a farmer in Amethi.

But what no one disputes is that the younger Gandhi has charm.

"She has a lot of glamour," said teacher Poonam Upadhyay, who works in Amethi and was at one of Gandhi's public meetings. "I came just to look at her and listen to her."


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