Ramkishan sits cross-legged at his small stall in Amethi. He's a seller of paan — the narcotic blend of areca nut and betel leaf chewed across much of South Asia — and as such sees all sorts of people go by from his stall. One of them, recently, was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, here in this small town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to campaign for her brother Rahul Gandhi, who is contesting the seat in the nation's legislative elections.
“I would vote for Rahul only because I know Priyanka is behind him,” Ramkishan says. “We will ensure Rahul wins because he has a sister who is deeply concerned about our issues.”
For the past two weeks, Priyanka, 42, has stationed herself in Amethi, and the neighboring constituency of Raebareli, to help whip up votes for her brother, who is Congress Party vice president, and their mother, the party's president Sonia Gandhi. Both are defending their seats in India’s lower house of Parliament while the party they lead fights for its life against the rising popularity of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.
Priyanka has not been shy, however, to step out of her supporting role and challenge Modi head-on, making national headlines as the Gandhi who has breathed life into an inert Congress campaign. Her articulate and tactful retorts to the BJP’s attempts to provoke her, largely by questioning the business practices of her husband Robert Vadra, have prompted some analysts to say that the final stage of the five-week Indian election cycle has actually evolved into a battle between Modi and Priyanka.
“By taking her on, Modi is secretly acknowledging that she might be a tougher adversary than her meek brother,” says a Congress worker in Amethi, who declined to give his name.
Priyanka’s informal campaigning style, as well as personal touch when talking to voters, has won over many Amethi residents in recent weeks — and also inadvertently underscored her brother’s shortcomings. Though Rahul has been Amethi's MP for the past 10 years, for example, many residents here are still waiting for basic facilities. In her campaign speeches, Priyanka has not shied away from addressing the issues of frequent power cuts, substandard health care facilities, unemployment and poor infrastructure.
“I wish I could directly vote for Priyanka,” says Ram Kishore, 31, another shop owner in town. “Now, I have to vote for Priyanka by voting for Rahul.”
The comparisons raise the larger questions of why the popular Priyanka wasn’t employed earlier in such a tough campaign for Congress. Priyanka herself has never publicly committed to any future political responsibility or role in Congress, but has campaigned for both her brother and mother before. Several Congress leaders have admitted that she reminds Indians of her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Priyanka’s conversational way of speaking to crowds, her presence and her cotton saris all conjure up images of the former PM, who was assassinated in 1984.
Priyanka may have jumped into the fray too late to save the Congress Party's sinking electoral fortunes this year. But her charisma and political astuteness have many in Amethi — and New Delhi — asking why she was not chosen to take the Gandhi legacy forward. To that, even some senior Congress leaders have no clear answers.
“I can’t understand why she is not our candidate,” says a Congress leader, who requested anonymity. “She has all the right ingredients to be a great political leader. She is truly Indira-ji’s granddaughter.”