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Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s politics of intimacy

Updated on: 20 May,2024 06:55 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

By publicly articulating emotions usually voiced behind closed doors among kith and kin, the outspoken leader is adept at forging a familial bond with audiences at Congress rallies

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s politics of intimacy

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with the party’s candidate from the Amethi constituency Kishori Lal Sharma (left) during a roadshow for the Lok Sabha polls, in Amethi district on Saturday. PIC/PTI

Ajaz AshrafCongress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has demonstrated in the ongoing election campaign that she has overcome her trauma over the assassination of her grandmother Indira Gandhi in 1984 and, seven years later, of father Rajiv Gandhi. The scars may still run deep, but she has acquired the necessary psychological distance from her traumatic experiences to emerge as the chronicler of her family’s grief.

Her chronicle is personalised: she publicly articulates emotions usually voiced behind closed doors among friends and family. In doing so, she and the audiences at her rallies are bonded together as one large family, which must, therefore, be made privy to her suffering over Indira falling to a hail of bullets and Rajiv being blown into pieces.

Call it the politics of intimacy!

Whether in Amethi or Rae Bareli, Morena or Nandurbar, Priyanka vividly describes her family’s grief at different venues with minor variations. Pieced together, the story is as follows: After the Congress was voted out of power in the 1989 general election, she worried over her father’s security, even fasting five days a week for his well-being. She said she would not sleep at night until she heard her father walk past her room.

One summer night in 1991, she received a phone call informing her that Rajiv had been assassinated. It became her burden to convey the news to her mother Sonia. With a touch of drama, she says she told her mother that the man for whose love she left her country to make India as her own, for whose sake she embraced its culture, was dead. A strange kind of darkness spread in Sonia’s eyes; she did not eat for days despite Priyanka’s cajoling, surviving only on nimbu-pani.

“I was 19 years old. I was angry,” Priyanka confesses. She was angry because she had sent her father to the people, trusting them to protect him. But they returned him in pieces wrapped in the tricolour drenched in blood. With time, she realised her anger with them was of the kind we direct at those whom we love. That they loved Rajiv became palpable to her when the train she took to Allahabad, where Rajiv’s ashes were to be immersed, stopped at Rae Bareli. She was forlorn; she thought nobody could understand her pain. Yet, when Priyanka looked out of the window, she saw hundreds of people gathered at the station late at night. They were weeping inconsolably. Priyanka realised she and the people were tied together by knots of familial sorrow.

After turning the venue of rally into an intimate family space, she refers to the Prime Minister’s charge that Priyanka’s father abolished the inheritance tax, in 1985, in order to save on the tax he would have had to pay on the wealth he inherited from Indira. In intimate spaces, we are allowed to vent. And so, she explodes, pointing out that what her father received in inheritance was the spirit and passion for martyrdom. “How can they call a personality like Indira anti-national... who broke Pakistan into two and created Bangladesh,” Priyanka lashes out.

They—Bharatiya Janata Party, obviously—cannot understand the emotions martyrdom engenders, Priyanka thunders. “But you can,” she tells her listeners. They can because they have irrigated the land of India with their sweat, and send their children to the border, where they are martyred. “I understand your emotions because those very emotions are in me,” she says. The subtext of her speech: those whose sons or fathers have not shed blood for the nation can only be disrespectful of martyrs.

At Nandurbar, a reserved constituency for Scheduled Tribes, she speaks of how her grandmother always preserved the little gifts—baskets, for instance—Adivasis would send her. She would tell her grandchildren where the gifts came from, extolling the Adivasis for their unique culture. The Gandhis, unlike others, have never tried to culturally transform the Adivasis. Intimacy implies accepting differences.

Priyanka has played the politics of intimacy most tellingly in Amethi and Rae Bareli, narrating how Motilal Nehru sent her great-grandfather Jawaharlal to find out about the area’s farmers, who had displayed courage by rebelling against the British. Yes, they did vanquish Indira, but did she not introspect, correct her mistakes, and return to them seeking forgiveness? They elected her. Wouldn’t Rajiv, with Priyanka in tow, visit their homes? Did they not scold him for unfulfilled promises? And didn’t her father make amends? It is to uphold the tradition of establishing intimacy with the people that her brother “walked 4,000 kilometres” to enquire about their problems.

But India’s politics has changed over the years. Leaders don’t go to people with humility, with their heads bowed. They address rallies from the dais and disappear, she says, dramatising intimacy by identifying a woman in the audience who stitched sari falls to raise money for educating her daughter. Priyanka summons the woman to the stage and hugs her. India must return to the politics of intimacy, Priyanka implores. 

Rae Bareli and Amethi will be Priyanka’s test. Should the Congress lose both, it will be a testament to India having fallen for the politics of remote persuasion and control.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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