After years of speculation, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the charismatic younger sister of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, seems to have finally shed her reticence and decided to play a more active and visible role in politics.

In a surprise development on Wednesday, she was named Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, months ahead of the next Lok Sabha election. Jyotiraditya Scindia has been entrusted with the responsibility of Western Uttar Pradesh.

The national elections are due in April or May.

The announcement came days after the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party tied up in Uttar Pradesh for the general elections, and chose to keep the Congress out of the alliance. The alliance between the two former arch enemies had demoralised Congress workers even though they put up a brave face, saying that their party was ready to contest the elections on its own.

But there was a dramatic change of mood on Wednesday. As expected, Vadra’s formal entry into politics electrified the party rank and file, which was quick to say the move was a game changer not just in Uttar Pradesh but across the country. Others described it as the Congress’s final weapon, which showed that the party has not thrown in the towel in the politically-important state of Uttar Pradesh – which has 80 Lok Sabha seats – and is all set for the battle ahead.

Jitin Prasada, former Lok Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh, was upbeat. “People are looking for an alternative in Uttar Pradesh and now they finally have one,” he said.

Kumari Selja, member of the Congress Working Committee, said: “This is a most welcome step, it will provide new energy and focus to the party.”

Party workers enthused

Known for their sycophantic veneration of the Gandhi family, Congress cadres have been mounting pressure on the leadership for years asking that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra play a larger role in the party. It was accepted in Congress circles that her relaxed style of campaigning, easy connect with the people, and resemblance with her grandmother Indira Gandhi would enthuse both party workers and people.

This demand always gathered momentum before an election as there were lingering doubts among party workers about Rahul Gandhi’s ability to lead the party and win an election. Had she taken this plunge earlier, it would have been a virtual admission that Rahul Gandhi had been a failure. She has chosen to make her debut now only after Rahul Gandhi has settled down in his new job as Congress president and has a firm grip on the party organisation. Moreover, the party’s recent victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have improved Rahul Gandhi’s confidence levels and added to his stature.

Till now, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had chosen to confine her political activities to her mother’s and brother’s Lok Sabha constituencies – Rae Bareli and Amethi. Though she constantly maintained that she had no plans to enter the hurly-burly of politics, she was never out of the scene. She sat in on the party’s strategy sessions and has played a key role in the selection of candidates and the planning of past elections.

Uphill task

While the enthusiastic response of the Congress cadre to her appointment is on expected lines, there is no denying that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra faces an uphill task in Uttar Pradesh where she has been given charge of a region which includes Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Gorakhpur, which Adityanath represented in Parliament five times till he took over as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 2017.

She has less than three months to organise party workers in a region where the Congress has virtually no presence, no social base and no cadres.

Though Congress leaders insist that Vadra’s presence will help the party in denting the BJP’s upper caste vote, which is looking for an alternative, there is also a fear that this move could divide the Muslim vote between the Congress and Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance and help the saffron party.

Undoubtedly, Vadra has always been a draw with the people but it is also a fact that despite her efforts in the party’s fiefdoms, the Congress has never succeeded in capturing the Assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi. Her road shows with Rahul Gandhi and her joint campaigns with Sonia Gandhi in these constituencies drew enthusiastic crowds but never led to any major electoral upheaval.

On the other hand, she will become the BJP’s prime target of attack. Her entry into politics will provide the saffron party fresh ammunition to slam the Congress for encouraging dynastic politics. Above all, there will be greater focus on her husband Robert Vadra’s dubious land deals, which are currently being investigated by various government agencies.

While the BJP’s spokespersons lost no time in launching an offensive against the Congress in general and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in particular, the government machinery also got into the act. Before the day was over, instructions had been issued to the government-run Doordarshan and All India Radio that news bulletins should refer to her as Priyanka Vadra without any mention of Gandhi.

There is no doubt the Congress has taken a huge gamble in pitching Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to the political forefront. It is now to be seen if she can turn around the party’s fortunes or if she will remain a subject of animated conversation and nothing more.