As Priyanka Gandhi embarked on a roadshow through Lucknow to kick off her campaign for Uttar Pradesh on Monday, a bizarre sideshow played out on mainstream and social media.
The mega rally took place three weeks after Priyanka Gandhi made her formal entry into politics, taking charge as the Congress’s general secretary for Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The party pulled out all stops to ensure a spectacle – and the media played along, breathlessly covering the events before, during and after the rally.
The Times of India carefully chronicled Priyanka Gandhi’s expressions and hand movements, her “grins and vigorous nods”, and copiously read between the lines of her gesture of holding a model of a Rafale jet along with her brother, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. As the election approaches, the Congress is working hard to keep the alleged irregularities in the purchase of the Rafale fighter aircraft from France in the news, with Rahul Gandhi leading the charge.
Though Priyanka Gandhi did not say anything about the alleged scam during the roadshow, “her impromptu decision to join her brother...in lifting the dummy model of Rafale”, according to The Times of India, “left many wondering if there is more to her striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi”. “While Rahul rallied behind the ‘Chowkidar-hi-chor-hai’ chorus,” the daily said, “the Congress eastern UP in-charge firmly held the handle carrying the Rafale jet model.”
The India Today news channel decided to offer an inside view of the rally – quite literally – by touring the interiors of the bus in which the Gandhi siblings were travelling. “Everything has been sanitised,” the reporter says at one point. “Here is where the driver will sit,” she remarks while moving to the wheel. The refrigerator, the microwave and the television also get some air time.
The Aaj Tak website was even more granular in its coverage, zooming in on the black dot or teeka on the foreheads of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, a superstition followed in Hinduism to ward off ill luck, and speculating whose evil gaze they were guarding against.
ABP News was among several channels that started counting down to the roadshow, dedicating one segment, titled “Saat Din Siyasat Ke”, or Seven Days of Politics, to Priyanka Gandhi’s first week in office since she taking charge on February 7. There was much analysis of her decision to spend four days in the Uttar Pradesh capital and on-the-spot reports from areas the roadshow was set to pass through.
The channel also had a segment on 25 highlights of the rally. Among observations about the crowds and the preparations, the takeaways included the fact that Rahul Gandhi was checking his phone frequently and that around 4 pm, the Congress chief had tea, while his sister did not.
A glass of lassi, meanwhile, briefly attracted the attention of India TV, which also covered the rally extensively. It also observed that while Priyanka Gandhi usually wears a sari to public meetings, this time she was in a salwar kurta.
Thieves had a “field day” at the roadshow, reported India Today, citing accounts of Congress workers who claimed that 50 phones had been stolen. “Congress workers caught a man for mobile theft and managed to hand him over to the police,” the report said. “Police had to release the man as not a single phone was recovered from him.” A police complaint has been filed, the report added.
Priyanka Gandhi’s “Pink Army” – a group of about 500 volunteers dressed in pink who call themselves the Priyanka Sena – also attracted much attention and became Twitter’s meme topic of the day.
As some journalists pointed out, for all the posturing, Priyanka Gandhi did not say anything during her roadshow, even as the Congress president addressed the public. Some speculated that the Congress leader wanted to weigh her words, while others said it was a way of communicating that Rahul Gandhi remains the boss.
A day before the roadshow, an article in Foreign Policy foreshadowed the media spectacle the event was likely to be:
“Lacking a sizable advertising budget, the Congress can ensure wall-to-wall television coverage of any event in which Gandhi even remotely figure. In a country where dynastic politicians are often revered as deities, Rahul Gandhi has not yet attained divine status – a reflection of his uneasiness with the spotlight. Given the novelty associated with Priyanka Gandhi’s plunge into the rough-and-tumble of retail politics and her perceived superior political acumen, India’s ratings-mad news channels will gladly cut into live programming to air any speech, press conference, or casual remark she gives on the trail. In 2014, Modi and the BJP saturated the media landscape, with the star campaigner’s face and the party’s election symbol – the lotus flower – plastering billboards to bus shelters. Gandhi allows the Congress to claw some of this space back – for free.”