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The demons that dog Priyanka

Publication Date : 12-05-2014


Who loves you, baby?

Who watches for your every smile, every throwaway line that drops from your finely shaped mouth and each elegant wave of your hand? Draws parallels of you with your famous grandmother, Indira Gandhi, gushes at the cotton saris that add another feature of resemblance to the woman some called Empress of India? Who cannot wait for the day you decide that you too will fully enter the political swirl that has been the vocation of four generations of your family?

The thousand television cameras of India's sound-bite-hungry media.

So too a widening section of Congress party men desperately looking for a charismatic figure to lift them out of their looming electoral misery.

Will Priyanka Gandhi Vadra oblige? Should she? It is by no means an easy decision. Certainly, there is a national constituency beyond her door: A study put out by New Delhi's Centre for Media Studies showed that on her forays to defend the parliamentary constituencies of her brother, Rahul, and mother, Sonia, she got twice the prime-time coverage accorded to Sonia Gandhi, who is president of the ruling Congress Party.

Yet, the journey thus far has not been easy, never mind the power, the adulation, the special handling and the worship you earn from being the most attractive feature of India's foremost political clan. In-dians may be enthralled by this figure, seeing strength, wit, vigour and class. But inside, who knows, could be a woman who does not aspire to be much more than a good wife, mother and sister.

After all, at 42, few people could have lost so much. The demons are never far away, lurking behind the happy memories.

Take a look at her life.

It is 1980 and Priyanka and older brother Rahul are in a parked Ambassador car at New Delhi's Palam Airport, not yet named Indira Gandhi International. There is an argument, a little pushing.

In the door-frame, unnoticed, appears a handsome man in the uniform of an airplane captain, smiling as he peeks in at his scrapping pair. A word from him and the duo are subdued. The car drives off, children now busy fawning over Rajiv Gandhi, India's future prime minister.

Some weeks later, as New Delhi's Junior Modern School on Humayun Road celebrates Sports Day, Rajiv and his wife, Sonia, turn up in T-shirts and jeans to mingle unobtrusively with children and fellow parents. Gamely, Rajiv joins a race organised for parents. As the contest starts, he tumbles over and so do a few other parents.

In a trice, portly Sports Minister Buta Singh, chief guest at the function, leaps to be by his side, obsequiously dusting off the younger man's clothes as other parents fend for themselves.

What a fool the Indian politician, attempting to ingratiate himself so plainly! Indira Gandhi's older son waves him away, and he and Sonia exchange winks and nudges.

Dad and Mum, dinner over at the joint family home they shared with then prime minister Indira Gandhi, driving the short distance to India Gate to relish the popsicles and ice-cream sold by that fat Sikh man whose trolley rolls up every evening and leaves just after 11pm.

Which modern kid does not like Mum's pasta, especially when the recipe is straight from Italy and she is only too happy to enter the kitchen. For the pre-teen Priyanka, life would have seemed so complete.

Surely, these and similar other moments must play through the younger Gandhi sibling's mind a thousand times as she determinedly trudged the dusty hinterland of Uttar Pradesh state to rally support for her mother and brother against a tide of public opinion that has swung so sharply against the Congress party they inherited and lead.

Then, surely must come the painful thoughts.

Uncle Sanjay, her father's politically active younger brother, dying in a plane crash in June 1980. Bereft of Sanjay's muscular support, Grandma turns to her father, forcing him to leave his Indian Airlines job to "help Mummy". Sonia weeps, knowing her calm and carefully ordered life is soon to turn upside down.

And of course it will, starting within the household.

Mrs Gandhi's move to turn to Rajiv upsets Maneka, Sanjay's widow, who had stood by Mrs Gandhi during her bad times and now assumes the Gandhi political legacy would come to her. There are tensions in the joint family, shouting, and then, the spunky aunt is bounced out of the house by Grandma. With her goes Priyanka's toddler cousin, Varun Feroze, the boy in the family who carries the name of Indira's husband, and is loved by one and all.

Outside the home, Indira Gandhi is facing Sikh separatism in Punjab state, partly fanned by her own home minister, who is in a political battle with the Akali Dal group that governs Punjab. Forced to send in troops to oust the rebels from the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, Mrs Gandhi draws outrage from the Sikh community, even those who have no sympathy for militancy.

One day, the car carrying Rahul and Priyanka to school is bumped by another vehicle. Mrs Gandhi, fearful it is an attack on her grandchildren, or at least a warning, gathers the kids and takes them on a short holiday to Kashmir, seeking peace amid the maples, evergreens and pine of the Valley. Short weeks later, on Oct 31, 1984, Grandma is cut down by bullets fired by her own Sikh bodyguards and it is Mum Sonia who rushes the mortally wounded prime minister to hospital.

In less than seven years, her own father, who had succeeded Mrs Gandhi as prime minister, would be killed too, blown up while campaigning in Tamil Nadu by a woman suicide bomber dispatched by the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. So massive is the blast that Rajiv is recognised only by his running shoes. The body is accompanied to New Delhi by his school chum, Suman Dubey, who remains a father figure to the Gandhi kids and Sonia's most trusted counsellor.

Whatever you say about the Gandhi clan, their vanity, lack of intellectual depth or propensity to fall for flattery - Buta Singh rose to be home minister in Rajiv's Cabinet - it is indisputable that a streak of public service runs in their veins. So too a concern for the dispossessed and the people who lead marginal existences. Alongside, of course, is also a conviction that they were born to rule party and government, and almost everyone else is an interloper.

Hence the attacks on opposition leader and Chief Minister Narendra Modi's Gujarat model of development, tilted towards building economic sinews on a capitalist path.

Also why Priyanka, when wrongly informed last week that Modi had described her as "like a daughter to me", had dismissively responded that she could only be Rajiv's daughter.

"My father died for his country," she said.

The Gandhi women are made of stern stuff. In her time, Indira Gandhi was hailed by admirers as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga, embodying power and invincibility. That said, except for a faint resemblance in hairstyle to her grandmother, Priyanka looks more like her father.

But the fighting spirit comes from Indira and this was first evident in 1991, when Priyanka, barely out of her teens, campaigned against Arun Nehru, a Gandhi cousin who had fallen out with her father and then sought to usurp his parliamentary seat after Rajiv's death.

It proved a success. Arun Nehru was defeated and Rajiv's friend and flying associate, Captain Satish Sharma, won through in Amethi, establishing Priyanka as a political draw.

Capt Sharma yielded the Amethi seat to Sonia in 1999, who then vacated it for Rahul in 2004. Since then, Priyanka's focus has been on ensuring that Amethi and nearby Rae Bareli, her mother's current constituency, have been safe for Congress, freeing mother and brother to campaign across the nation.

Her best performance came in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections, where Congress won seven of the 10 assembly segments from Amethi and Rae Bareli. But that solid performance can no longer be taken for granted. For instance, in the 2012 state elections, Congress lost in three of the five assembly segments in Amethi.

Likewise, while she has defended the business dealings of her husband, Robert Vadra, it is not certain whether this comes from deep conviction that he is blameless or from a wifely instinct to defend the family name against attack. In her time, Indira Gandhi's husband, Feroze Ghandy, gave plenty of trouble to his father-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru.

But Ghandy, an MP, did so by exposing possible corruption in the Nehru Cabinet. Vadra, a man who came into her life in her teens after they reportedly met on the dance floor of a disco, is not in the same league.

Vadra is loud, a lounge lizard who rides around on powerful motorcycles and a fitness freak who thinks nothing of walking into the gym at the India Habitat Centre, across the road from his Lodi Estate home, and, without caring to ask anyone around, inserting his music into the stereo system and turning up the volume.

"It got to me once," recalls a person who uses the IHC gym regularly. "I turned to the attendant and ordered him to turn the volume down. Since then, Robert waves to me tentatively and I nod to him."

Vadra is also known to be fast friends with the owners of DLF, one of India's biggest real estate firms, and he owns a massive apartment in the DLF-built Aralias in the suburb of Gurgaon. He spends a lot of his time there and is not always accompanied by his wife. Neighbours say that when he entertains, DLF Golf & Country Club, over whose verdant greens his apartment overlooks, obliges by keeping the floodlights on until the party is over.

Vadra's life has been troubled too. A brother committed suicide, a sister died in a car crash and his father was found dead in a cheap motel some years ago. His mother, Maureen, is listed as a partner in his many business ventures, many of which have shown astounding success after the Congress party regained power in 2004.

Vadra showed up with Rahul as he filed his nomination papers from Amethi but has kept a low profile during the remainder of the campaign and was not around when Sonia filed her own papers in the adjacent constituency.

Whether in public life or privately, Ms Priyanka Vadra has much to think about.

In 2008, she travelled to Vellore Central Prison in Tamil Nadu to meet Nalini Sriharan, one of the women who plotted her father's assassination for the Tamil Tigers.
Nalini, sentenced to death, had her punishment reduced to life imprisonment on a plea from Sonia Gandhi.

"Visiting Nalini was my way of coming to terms with the violence and loss that I have suffered," Priyanka explained later. "I do not believe in anger, violence and hatred and I do not let these things overpower my life."

Political analyst Bharat Bhushan speaks approvingly of her fighting instincts, noting that Modi's public characterisations of the Gandhi family had used the language of a street bully and needed to be put down.

"She has taken on each of his vitriolic outbursts and shown them to be short of desirable public conduct," he says. "She told him that he was being childish and should conduct himself with dignity if he wants to be PM."

Most people think of Priyanka as gregarious, outgoing, a natural politician. In truth, outside the five-year election cycle, she is a private person, sometimes showing up quietly in New Delhi's Santushti Shopping Arcade or Khan Market to look for cotton clothes. Sometimes she flies her children, Raihan and Miraya, to Singapore, where the family can move around with minimum security. Her big intellectual interest is Buddhism.

Asked to describe herself, she said recently: "I am a recluse."

Any surprise there?


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