A member of India's famous Gandhi dynasty could challenge Modi in upcoming election

  • Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, younger sister to Rahul Gandhi, is the newly-appointed general secretary of the opposition Congress party.
  • Her decision to formally enter politics is viewed a strategic move aimed at bolstering the party's appeal ahead of a national election due by May.
  • The 47-year-old is widely considered the more savvy Gandhi sibling due to her charm and oratorical prowess.
February 11, 2019: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (L) at a political rally with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Lucknow, the capital of the election bellwether Uttar Pradesh state.
STR/AFP/Getty Images
February 11, 2019: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (L) at a political rally with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Lucknow, the capital of the election bellwether Uttar Pradesh state.

A scion of India's prominent first family has entered politics and is being touted as a threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's coalition government in the country's upcoming general election.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the younger sister of Rahul Gandhi who leads the opposition Congress party, was named general secretary of the faction last month. It was seen as a strategic move aimed at bolstering Congress' support ahead of a national vote due by May. The 47-year-old, who is widely referred to by her first name, is considered the more savvy Gandhi sibling due to her charm and oratorical prowess.

Both Priyanka and Rahul come from a storied family that has framed Indian politics since the nation's independence in 1947. Their grandmother Indira Gandhi, daughter of the country's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and their father Rajiv Gandhi, were both massively popular prime ministers before they were assassinated.

The Gandhis have led Congress for decades. Following the death of Rajiv, his wife Sonia, who is of Italian descent, took over the party's presidency and passed the reins over to her son Rahul in 2017. Priyanka has previously participated in Congress campaigns but never held an official post in the party until now.

Under Rahul's leadership, Congress' performance has been dwindling and the party suffered major losses in the 2014 general election. But after winning three state polls in December, the party's morale is on the rise. It now stands a real chance of revitalization with the addition of Priyanka, experts say.

"It is very possible that she could make a difference at the ballot box." -Lindsay Hughes, Future Directions International

"The fact that Priyanka Gandhi has entered Indian politics at this particular juncture marks a major turning point for a party that many had written off as one whose importance was a thing of the past," Lindsay Hughes, senior research analyst at Future Directions International, an Australian think tank, said in a recent note. "It is very possible that she could make a difference at the ballot box."

Priyanka's new role also coincides with rising criticism toward Modi's government.

The prime minister, whose ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in 2014, enjoys widespread support. But the shine has come off amid backlash from his party's Hindu nationalist ideology, the 2016 demonetization move and rural discontent. Attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities by radical Hindus, the BJP's core constituency, have also increased under Modi, according to numerous reports, as his government is accused of supporting religious mobilization.

Congress can capitalize on these areas, analysts say. The opposition group believes Priyanka has "charisma, resemblance with Indira Gandhi and enough verbal ammunition" to challenge Modi, Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow specializing in governance at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, wrote in a recent note.

Priyanka's appeal

The parallels between Priyanka and her grandmother are considered key to Congress votes. Her physical resemblance to Indira, India's only female prime minister, saw Congress supporters carry signs saying "Indira is back" when the Gandhi siblings began a roadshow in Uttar Pradesh this week.

"The conflation of Priyanka with Indira could lend to the perception that the Congress Party has re-discovered its purpose, that it has a definite goal and that the secularism it has historically espoused and the safety it offers India's minorities could replace the Bharatiya Janata Party's nationalistic tendencies," said Hughes.

Despite limited political experience, Priyanka's "modest forays into public life suggest a natural comfort with the thrust and parry of Indian politics," said Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a note.

Sentiment aside, there's a much more tangible way that Priyanka can help Congress — by attracting fresh funds.

"The Priyanka Gandhi play is not only about winning allies and lifting spirits; it's also about cash," said Vaishnav. "The party is short of it, and Gandhi substitutes for the political finance that the Congress desperately needs."

The BJP's victory over Congress in the 2014 election was partly due to its "impressive fundraising advantage," Vaishnav said, noting that Modi's party reported $82 million in donations during the 2014 election period, compared to Congress' $49 million.

Heading into the 2019 polls, it doesn't look like the situation has improved much. "Reports suggest that Congress state units have been starved of funds from the party high command due to the fiscal crunch," according to Vaishnav.

"This is where the Priyanka Gandhi factor will make a difference," he said. "Lacking a sizable advertising budget, the Congress can ensure wall-to-wall television coverage of any event in which Gandhi even remotely figures ... 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."

Too little too late?

Many critics don't believe the younger Gandhi sibling possesses the political clout to tip the election scales toward Congress.

A connection with Indira Gandhi may not be enough "to overcome barriers of caste, sub-caste, proven administrative skill [and] political acumen," said Kidwai. First-time voters, in particular, may be "unlikely to be swayed by someone who has not held any responsible post and office in public or in her professional career," he added.

Allegations of corruption against Priyanka's husband Robert Vadra over money-laundering and property transactions might be another obstacle. Given the Indian public's fatigue with tainted politicians, her task of winning over the public could be complicated.

The Gandhi family's legacy could also place unrealistically high expectations on Priyanka, Kidwai said. "Congressmen of all hue and shades look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return, expect electoral success [and] power ... Gandhis like Rahul and now Priyanka, have to live with this illusion of grandeur and prove Congressmen's political instincts right."

Priyanka also faces the tough task of balancing her popularity against that of her brother since she can't be seen as overshadowing the Congress president, Kidwai added.