Priyanka Gandhi playing key role in brother's campaign

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (left) and his sister Priyanka Gandhi meeting a group of people with disabilities in New Delhi. While Mr Gandhi is the face of the Congress campaign, his sister is known for her spontaneity and ability to connect with people.

WHEN Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi spoke to a group of business leaders in Delhi three months ago, he turned to his younger sister Priyanka to help him craft his speech.

"Our vision for India is of a country whose economy would be the largest in the world, second to none," said Mr Gandhi, 43, in his speech, even as he acknowledged growth had slowed.

His sister is a 42-year-old psychology graduate, who is often compared to their grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi. At least one leader has described the mother of two as Mr Gandhi's chief aide.

While he is the face of the Congress campaign, the younger Gandhi, known for her spontaneity and ability to connect with people, works behind the scenes.

She has been helping her brother with his speeches, takes calls on the advertisement campaign, provides input on his media plan and monitors the campaign in the family constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli, among others, according to those in the know.

When Mr Gandhi gave a full-length television interview last month - his first since joining politics in 2004 - Ms Gandhi was present during the interview.

Although Mr Gandhi fumbled for answers during the interview, she was said to be in favour of him doing the interview with Mr Arnab Goswami, who is known for his aggressive interview style.

The Congress party, which won the last two general elections, faces an uphill task at the coming polls following corruption scandals, a slowing economy and high inflation.

Opinion polls show that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, led by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, 63, is ahead of Mr Gandhi. Mr Modi is feted for transforming Gujarat into an economic powerhouse.

Mr Gandhi, who has been slowly taking on responsibilities from his mother and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, has stepped up his campaign. He has addressed multiple rallies, starred in television advertisements urging people to vote Congress and initiated changes within the organisation, such as holding United States-style primaries to choose candidates in a handful of constituencies.

His sister, who has in the past largely spent time with her two children and businessman husband Robert Vadra, 44, is playing a supportive role, even as Indian politics is dotted with instances of sibling rivalry. In the DMK, for instance, the Tamil Nadu party leader M. Karunanidhi's sons have been in a power struggle.

"From a Congress point of view, they (Priyanka and Rahul) are not competitors. There is no sibling rivalry in this case. They get along very well and work like a unit," said Mr Rasheed Kidwai, journalist and author of two books on the Congress party.

"She is informally taking charge of Uttar Pradesh and personally supervising Congress campaign preparations and meetings, which take a lot of time. Rahul is respected but Priyanka is adored in the Congress."

In doing so, they are adding another chapter to the story of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, which has given India three prime ministers: their great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru; grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv.

Many in the Congress party hope Ms Gandhi will join politics. So far, she has shied away from a full-time political career and has been visible only at election time. Congress leaders said she will be campaigning this time too, but only in the family boroughs.

In fact, in 2012, she stepped in to manage her mother's campaign in Rae Bareli constituency and her brother's constituency of Amethi after the Congress fared poorly in the state elections. The party lost eight of the 10 assembly segments in the two parliamentary seats.

The losses were blamed on the wrong choice of candidates, as well as the perception that the Gandhis, who live about 580km away, in Delhi, were out of touch with constituents. Since then, Ms Gandhi has toured the two constituencies, interacting with party workers and constituents.

"Rahul Gandhi has to campaign around the whole country but we have Priyanka Gandhi coming here," said district Congress leader Yogendra Mishra. "Her image is very good and workers are more involved with her."

He added: "Here, no other factor works except for the Gandhi name."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

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