India’s Priyanka Gandhi to finally make electoral debut

Priyanka Gandhi, sister of India’s main opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, is set to contest her first election, ending decades of anticipation by her supporters.

Ms Gandhi is a descendant of the Nehru-Gandhi family, India’s most famous political dynasty, and her electoral debut will be closely watched.

The 52-year-old will contest the Wayanad seat in the southern Indian state of Kerala after her brother relinquishes it.

A win for Ms Gandhi would mean the presence of all three Gandhi family members in the Indian parliament.

Her mother Sonia Gandhi, former president of the Congress party, is an MP in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the parliament.

Her brother Mr Gandhi won the recent parliamentary elections from both Wayanad and Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli seats.

Mr Gandhi, who has represented Wayanad as an MP since 2019, is giving it up as he can only retain one parliamentary seat under Indian law. On Monday, he thanked the people of Wayanad for their “love, affection and support”.

A date for the by-election is yet to be announced but Ms Gandhi says she is “not nervous at all”.

“I am very happy to be able to represent Wayanad and I will not let them feel his [Rahul Gandhi’s] absence,” she said on Monday. “I will work hard and I will try my best to make everyone happy and be a good representative.”

The by-election will mark the end of a decades-long wait by Congress supporters for Ms Gandhi’s involvement in electoral politics.

Getty Images Ex-Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on the right with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the centre and Rahul Gandhi on the left at a public meeting on 17 May 2024 in Rae BareliGetty Images
A win for Ms Gandhi (standing between her brother and mother) would mean the presence of all three Gandhi family members in the Indian parliament

Journalist Javed Ansari, who has reported on the Congress party for decades, told BBC Hindi that he was not surprised by the announcement.

“I think it was a question of when [she would contest] and not if,” he said.

For years, Ms Gandhi was considered the more popular of the Gandhi siblings with many blaming the “lacklustre leadership” of her brother for a string of Congress defeats between 2014 and 2019.

From an early age, people have pointed to Ms Gandhi’s resemblance to her grandmother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Ms Gandhi was actively involved in the election campaigns of her mother from the late 1990s. She also campaigned for her brother when he actively joined politics in 2004.

Senior leaders have praised her political acumen and her flair for engaging with people.

Ms Gandhi’s official entry into politics came when she was put in charge of the Congress campaign in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh state, ahead of the 2019 general election.

The Congress went on to perform poorly in that election and the state assembly polls in 2022, but Ms Gandhi was not blamed. Senior party leaders said the performance was not a reflection of her work and in line with their expectations.

Appointed Congress’ general secretary in 2019, Ms Gandhi has since overseen the party’s campaigns in several state elections.

Party leaders say she’s been crucial in stabilising the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh state this year amid rebellion by some of its own lawmakers.

She was also at the forefront of the Congress’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh state – where opposition parties performed surprisingly well – and especially in the Gandhi family bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli.

“She held the fort for Rahul and that is how he could campaign across the country,” Mr Ansari said.

Political commentator Neerja Chowdhury said it would be interesting to see the siblings in parliament together if Ms Gandhi wins.

“Personally, I think Priyanka is savvier of the two. She thinks on her feet and her language is clearer than his,” she said, adding that she will be “watched very closely”.

Getty Images Young women pose for a selfie with Congress Party's Priyanka Gandhi during her campaign on March 27, 2019 in Uttar Pradesh, India. Getty Images
Priyanka Gandhi has been a big draw for her party for decades

Congress leaders and workers in Kerala have expressed happiness at the possibility of having Ms Gandhi as an MP from Wayanad.

ND Ayyappan, president of the party committee in the district, said: “It indicates that the family will continue its ties with the people of Wayanad.”

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has criticised dynastic politics in response to news of Ms Gandhi’s electoral debut.

“Congress is not a party but a family business,” BJP leader Shehzad Poonawalla said.

But the announcement of her candidacy received praise from Annie Raja, a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) who had contested against Mr Gandhi in Wayanad in the recent election.

Ms Raja, who lost the election by a margin of over 360,000 votes, did not confirm whether she would run against Ms Gandhi in the by-election.

But she said, “We need more and more women in parliament.”

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