When Rahul Gandhi decided to contest the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, many believed that the wrong Gandhi sibling was joining politics. His younger sister Priyanka Gandhi, it was widely held, was more suited for the role. This perception was based on a short video clip that had been broadcast during the campaign for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, in which an animated Priyanka Gandhi lashed out extempore, in fluent Hindi, at her uncle Arun Nehru, who had decided to contest from Rae Bareli on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.
Before that, Gandhi had mainly been seen – but not heard – at two funerals and a wedding.
In the days of state-run television, while the Gandhi siblings were sometimes seen with their grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, it was her assassination in 1984 that brought them to national attention during the funeral that was telecast on Doordarshan. In photographs of that event, the 1972-born Priyanka Gandhi appears to be taller than her elder brother, the 1970-born Rahul Gandhi.
When her father, Rajiv Gandhi, was prime minister, the two children were intermittently seen on outings with their parents. The next significant memory India has of the siblings was in May 1991, at Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral, following his assassination in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu.
After that, Priyanka Gandhi was out of the public eye until 1997, when she married businessman Robert Vadra.
From 1998 to now, her public participation in politics has remained limited to the Gandhi family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, though she has been known to be more than a mere confidante and counsellor for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi when it comes to crucial decisions. While she was seen to be the main troubleshooter behind the scenes, especially since the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, her appointment on January 23 as party general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh came as a complete surprise.
In an interview to NDTV in 1999, while campaigning for her mother, Priyanka Gandhi was asked whether this was a dress rehearsal for her final entry into politics. “You will have to wait for a long, long time for that,” she replied.
Ten years later, in another interview to journalist Barkha Dutt in 2009, she said, “I’m very clear I don’t want to be in politics.” She said Vipassana meditation had helped her to “better know my own mind, rather than what other people want of me”.
“There was a time when I was a kid, when I was about 16-17 when I thought this is absolutely what I want to do with my life,” she told Dutt. “This question for me has existed since I was 14 years old,” she explained, calling it a result of being influenced by Indira Gandhi.
“Earlier my own identity was a bit confused,” she said, “because I did idealise my grandmother, I grew up in a household where she was the head and she was an extremely powerful woman. Not only politically powerful, but she was a powerful human being to be around. So being a little girl and seeing this woman who was strong and stood for so much, it did have an effect on me. So I think my own identity was confused until a certain point and when I discovered that – ‘Hey, Priyanka is actually this’ – then I realised that this is not for me.”
But ten years on, the wheel seems to have come a full circle. Now formally in politics, she faces an uphill task, with the general election barely three months away.
However, battling challenges isn’t something new for Priyanka Gandhi. Here is a look at some of the major turning points of her life and how she emerged from being a reclusive figure to becoming the Congress’ last hope of revival in India’s most populous and politically significant state.
Indira Gandhi’s assassination
Priyanka Gandhi was just 12 years old when her grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her bodyguards in New Delhi, on October 31, 1984. In an interview with Rediff in 2018, she said that the sequence of that morning was etched in her mind. She remembers borrowing a jhola (bag) from her grandmother that morning for a school play. “We could not fathom that she was killed,” she told Rediff. “She was larger than life.”
Indira Gandhi’s assassination had turned the world upside down for the family. Due to security concerns, the two children were pulled out of school and tutored at home. They were allowed to visit friends only once a week. In 1984, in a rare television interview about his personal life, Rajiv Gandhi complained that his children could not lead normal lives, and even their education had been “messed up” because of security concerns. “What is very difficult is what the children have to go through,” he said. “They can’t go out and play. They can’t be normal children…And, if anybody had to really sacrifice, it’s been the children.”
At that time, Teji Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan’s mother, who frequented the Gandhi household, introduced Priyanka Gandhi to Hindi literature. The younger Gandhi acknowledges that this helped her to speak fluent Hindi.
In the same interview, Rajiv Gandhi also talked about his daughter’s similarities to her grandmother. “Priyanka in a sense is much tougher, she’s lot like my mother. Strong-willed,” he said. “Rahul is much more outgoing, sporting type of person and much more sensitive perhaps.” Asked which of the siblings was more suited to politics, he said: “Neither of them are interested in entering politics.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination
On May 21, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in a suicide bombing by members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. His death devastated his family. “He was my best friend, the stabilising force in my life,” Priyanka Gandhi said in an interview in December. She mentioned that when she was a child, every time he left home, she felt he would never come back. “We had psychologically lived with his loss,” she said.
“In the beginning when my father was killed, I didn’t realise it, but I was furious,” Priyanka Gandhi Barkha Dutt in 2009. “I was absolutely furious inside. I was furious not with particular individuals who killed him, but I was furious with the whole world.”
Marriage to Robert Vadra
Eight years after her father’s death, on February 18, 1997, Priyanka Gandhi married her friend, jewellery exporter Robert Vadra, in her mother’s home in Delhi, in an elaborate Hindu ceremony. Besides relatives, the guests included Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, Congress president Sitaram Kesri and Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan.
In an interview published in Outlook in 2009, Priyanka Gandhi said she had first met Robert Vadra when she was 13 and that he had impressed her by not treating her any differently than others. She even called him “one of the cleanest people I have ever met” and said she admired how he did “not get carried away by anything”. The couple have been married for 22 years and have two children – son Raihan and daughter Miraya. Between 1998 and now, despite the clamour that she play an active role in the party, Priyanka Gandhi is said to have stayed out of politics because she wanted to focus on her children.
During the second Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, allegations of corruption were levelled at Robert Vadra. He was accused of misusing his Gandhi connection to make money. In 2012, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal and lawyer Prashant Bhushan claimed that his income grew from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 300 crore in three years. During this phase, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy (who is now with the Bharatiya Janata Party), in an interview to Karan Thapar, made a bizarre claim in which he accused the Gandhis of planting stories about Robert Vadra in the media. Later, during the campaign for the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi brought up Vadra’s real-estate dealings several times.
Sonia Gandhi enters politics
Sonia Gandhi had shunned politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, as the children concentrated on their education. However, the Congress’ poor performance in the 1996 Lok Sabha Elections led Gandhi family loyalists to put pressure on her to take over the party and campaign in the 1998 elections. Both her children opposed this idea, with Priyanka Gandhi saying, in her interview to Rediff, that they even warned their mother that she would be discarded by the party after the campaign. Despite their opposition, Sonia Gandhi agreed to campaign and held her first rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. “There were a lakh-and-a-half people,” Priyanka Gandhi told Rediff. “Her hands were shaking. ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ she kept saying. We told her it was too late, she had made this choice.”
Clamour for Priyanka
Sonia Gandhi subsequently took over as Congress president from Sitaram Kesri in 1998 and decided to contest the 1999 Lok Sabha polls from Amethi. Priyanka Gandhi’s foray into politics started with her mother’s electoral debut. She campaigned in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency and also managed it later. She has been actively involved in managing both Amethi and Rae Bareli since then.
She shot into the limelight in 1999, after her angry outburst against Arun Nehru. “How did you let into the area such a man who has committed treachery with my family?” she said. “Who despite being in the Congress joined hands with communal forces and who stabbed his brother in the back.”
Years later, in 2013, her son Raihan lit Arun Nehru’s funeral pyre.
But there was always a clamour by Congress workers that Priyanka Gandhi should join politics as she was seen as the more charismatic of the two siblings. “Unlike her mother and brother, she is a natural communicator; the exactness of her expression is an asset,” wrote former minister K Natwar Singh in his memoir, One Life is Not Enough.
In 2008, in an attempt to bring about a sense of closure regarding her father’s death, Priyanka Gandhi visited a jail in Vellore to meet Nalini Sriharan who was arrested in 1991 for her role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. “I was not angry and I didn’t hate her but I wanted to meet her,” Priyanka Gandhi said later in an interview. “I was still thinking that I was somebody who could forgive her for something she had done and then I met her and realised what am I talking about…Here is a woman who has gone through as much if not more than me.”
In her book, Rajiv Murder: Hidden Truths and Priyanka-Nalini Meeting, Sriharan wrote that during their meeting Priyanka Gandhi asked her: “Why did you do it? My father is a good man, a soft man, you could have resolved anything over a discussion with him.”
Backroom player in UP
Till 2017, Priyanka Gandhi was seen as a backroom player who focused on just the two family seats. However, her role in clinching an alliance with the Samajwadi Party before the 2017 Assembly elections in the state was an indication that she was taking a deeper interest in the party’s affairs. After initial discussions, there was a sense that the alliance would never materialise. Then Priyanka Gandhi spoke to Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and his wife Dimple Yadav, paving way for the alliance to be formed. She is even said to have played a major role in getting Akhilesh Yadav to agree to letting the Congress contest all 10 Assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi. The Samajwadi Party wanted to contest five seats in the two districts. The Congress, however, lost eight of the 10 seats.
Priyanka vs Rahul
The demand for Priyanka Gandhi to enter politics had always gathered momentum before an election as there were lingering doubts among party workers (and even political observers) 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 in December have improved Rahul Gandhi’s confidence levels and added to his stature.
Besides Congress workers, several commentators welcomed her formal entry into politics.
Columnist Shobhaa De asked why it took so long. In a piece headlined Protective Sonia & bodybuilder Robert Vadra have finally released Priyanka from purdah, De wrote: “Priyanka Gandhi should have been Plan A from the word go.”
Some eyebrows were raised when Makarand Paranjape, not quite seen as a Congress sympathiser, praised her “level-headedness, practical sense, inner stability, political acumen, and poise”, and wrote that “Priyanka and Rahul exemplify the harmony and unity in the ruling family of the Congress.” Election strategist-turned politician Prashant Kishor labeled her appointment as “one of the most awaited political entries”.
Charismatic and witty personality
Priyanka Gandhi’s ability to give back as good as she gets is one reason why she may be best suited for politics, as Modi and Adityanath are unlikely to let go of any opportunity to target her and the Gandhi family. In 2014, when Modi claimed that the Congress had gone old, Priyanka Gandhi quipped in a rally: “Do I look old to you?”
In 2014, when Modi claimed that she was like his daughter, she responded: “I am Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter.” That year, during an election campaign in Rae Bareli, Priyanka Gandhi responded to Modi’s RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra and Priyanka) taunt by saying, “You are not teaching in a primary school, you are addressing the nation…Don’t teach people the English alphabets like RSVP or ABCD.”