The Priyanka buzz: Will a Gandhi take on Narendra Modi in Varanasi?

The final decision on the candidate for Varanasi will be taken by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in consultation with Rahul and Priyanka, party officials say.
Bitiya Priyanka, Har Har Ganga.” This slogan doing the rounds among some members of the Congress in Varanasi is the first audible sign of the buzz that has kept the party leadership occupied for the last few days. A rumour is gaining strength that the Congress may announce a surprise candidate in Varanasi to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party contender, Narendra Modi. Many suggest that the Congress challenger will be either Priyanka Vadra or Rahul Gandhi.

Publicly though, the top leadership of the Congress is so silent on its candidate for Varanasi that even senior officials seem to be completely clueless about who will be named. “Every day I get several SMSes and calls from senior party leaders and MPs trying to know whether the party would indeed field Priyanaka or Rahul against Modi,” said a general secretary of the Congress on condition of anonymity.

According to party officials, the final decision on the candidate will be taken by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in consultation with Rahul and Priyanka.

At the moment, there are two views in the party. One is that Priyanka should be given a larger role in politics. The other insists that she should not be burdened with extra political work as she is already too occupied managing the elections in Rae Barely and Amethi, constituencies of her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, respectively.

Yet the buzz is so strong that when Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said on April 4 that Rajiv Gandhi had spoken to him about his daughter’s political aptitude way back in 1990, rumours spread like wild fire about the possibility of Priyanka entering active politics – and emerging as the party’s candidate to take on Modi. Dwivedi denied that his statement had any larger connotations. “As far as I know her [Priyanka’s] interest in politics started at an early age,” he said. “She was keen to understand political developments and the language of politics from the very start. I even have proof of this but I don’t want to discuss it now. All I’ll say is that Rajiv Gandhi told me something about this in 1990. That’s all for the moment.”

In private conversations, several Congress leaders – even those who are not in favour of fielding Priyanka or Rahul against Modi – argue that such a move would be a game-changer in the elections. They contend that such a decision would have a great bearing not just in Varanasi, but on several constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where demoralised Congress cadres would get massively energised. Fielding a Gandhi from Varanasi would increase the Congress’s chances of winning at least seven seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a party leader said. In addition to Varanasi, these seats are Azamgarh, Ghosi, Chail, Mirzapur, Jaunpur and Machhalishahar.

Narendra Modi is also contesting the Vadodara seat in his home state, Gujarat. His Congress opponent there is another general secretary of the party, Madhusudan Mistry. Mistry has publicly expressed the desire for Priyanka to do a "road show" to help his campaign. Yet others in the party feel Priyanka should be saved for the next election, especially as bringing her out as a wild card at the last minute would be an admission of Rahul's inadequacies. Party advisor Sam Pitroda said in an interview with Business Standard that it was Rahul, the party's vice president, who wants Priyanka to step up her role.

There is also speculation that the two main Uttar Pradesh parties, the Bahujan Samaj and Samajwadi Party, could come around to supporting a Congress candidate in the city to make things tough for Modi. But both parties have already  declared their candidates.

Congress officials said that the decision on Varanasi is likely to be made public by Tuesday.

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