Why ‘Priyanka from Varanasi’ was always a non-starter

Congress will not be fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi.

After weeks of speculation over Priyanka Gandhi’s candidature from Varanasi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seat – and the prospect of a dramatic contest between a Gandhi scion and the family’s detractor-in-chief, the Congress has announced it will field Ajay Rai from the Lok Sabha constituency.

Rai, who was the party’s candidate in 2014 as well, has the image of a local strongman with strong grassroots connect. He stood third after Modi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal in the previous election and may do better than last time, given that there is no other high profile candidate against Modi this time round. The decision indicates that the Congress will not be seen as a pushover in Varanasi.

But in the process of arriving at the decision, it went on and on about the possibility of Priyanka’s candidature from the seat and raised expectations of a grand contest. Now there is bound to be talk of how Priyanka was too scared to fight Modi, just as Rahul was afraid of losing from Amethi and hence chose to contest from Wyanad as well.

But even as speculation gained ground, it was clear that Priyanka’s Varanasi bid made little sense after three phases of polling, covering more than half the Lok Sabha seats (302 out of 543 seats). What could the Congress hope to gain from her campaign at this point beyond a symbolic advantage and limited traction in seats in Uttar Pradesh and North India that are yet to go to polls?

The speculation was fuelled in part by Priyanka’s own utterances on the campaign trail that suggested that she was all for the big fight. But there was no clear indication from the Congress that it was considering such a major decision in the middle of the campaign. Equally, neither did it issue a denial – until the morning of April 25 when a Congress candidate list put an end to all such talk dramatically.

Now in the aftermath of Rai’s candidature, the Priyanka discussions only appear to signal how difficult it has been for the Congress to find narrative points to counter the BJP pitch, which is all about Modi. The speculation was given a renewed push on the morning of Modi’s ‘freewheeling chat’ with actor Akshay Kumar on April 24, which trended all over social media and became a fixture across TV channels. But it is interesting that there has also been similar speculation about Modi’s candidature from a seat in Bengal. Both sides appear to be trying hard to dominate the headlines in the middle of what is a long-drawn out election campaign.

But fielding Priyanka would always have been a bit of non-starter. If the Congress had green lighted it at this stage, it would have suggested that the party wanted to use what is left of this election to extract maximum advantage for her future prospects. The implication of this, of course, would have been that the Congress was reconciled to a poor show on results day.

Of course, if Priyanka were to contest, it would have raised her stature as a politician immediately. Even if she lost the election – Arvind Kejriwal lost against Modi and then went on to become Delhi CM – she would still have been seen as someone who fought the good fight. It would have prepared the ground for her to be fielded as the Congress’ chief ministerial face in the 2022 UP Assembly polls.

However, the downside of this would have been a possible marginalisation of Rahul Gandhi. Unless her entry from Varanasi had been planned months in advance and with strategic precision, Priyanka’s entry would have given the impression that the Congress was willing to let her overtake her brother in terms of perception. She would have been seen as the direct challenger to Modi, instead of him.

In the absence of nuanced messaging, it would have been an admission that Rahul Gandhi’s plain-speaking simplicity was no match for Narendra Modi’s complex political messaging, and that someone of Priyanka’s calibre was needed to tackle the PM. Where would that have left Congress’ decade-long attempt to project Rahul Gandhi as the party’s Gen Next face?

Moreover, the logical corollary of Priyanka Gandhi taking on the PM would be that she should be projected as the party’s PM face in the future. In fact, an unplanned move to nominate Priyanka from Varanasi would have meant that the Rahul era in the Congress had come to end prematurely and that it would be a ‘Rahul-Priyanka’ Congress henceforth, with Priyanka in pole position.

The Congress was far from ready to signal this major change of tack during the campaign. Perhaps it was just a case of making sure that Modi does not grab all the spotlight in the days before May 23, 2019.

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