Another member of Gandhi dynasty weighs into bitter Indian election battle

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, seen as more charismatic than brother Rahul, gives speech calling for power 'in the hands of the people'

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the youngest adult member of south Asia's most powerful political dynasty, weighed into India's increasingly bitter election campaign on Wednesday with a speech in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Gandhi Vadra, 42, is the sister of Rahul Gandhi, the public face of the incumbent Congress party's bid to retain power for a third term, and the daughter of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party's president.

"You have to decide whether you want politics where strength and power lies in the hands of the people or is vested in just one man," Gandhi Vadra told a crowd in the impoverished rural seat of Rae Bareli.

A series of opinion surveys have put the opposition Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), led by a controversial Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, far ahead of the Congress party. A poll earlier this week indicated that the BJP may even achieve a majority, which would be a crushing defeat for the centre-left party led by the Gandhis.

Critics say Modi, who is chief minister of Gujarat, has authoritarian tendencies and is prejudiced along sectarian lines. Modi rejects both charges.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 but is increasingly unpopular even in its heartlands. A series of corruption scandals, flagging economic growth and rising food prices have sapped support for the Congress party after a decade in power.

A Congress minister said, on condition of anonymity, that Gandhi Vadra, who is not standing for parliament, was not seeking to upstage her elder brother but was simply "lending a hand".

"She has a formidable intellect and is working hard and loyally because her brother is travelling so much he cannot attend to every and all things at once," the minister said.

There have been reports that Congress is planning a more public role for Gandhi Vadra, with suggestions that she might even stand as a Congress candidate against Modi, 63, in the hugely significant seat of Varanasi, the northern holy city. The party eventually picked a "local" candidate.

In contrast to her older brother Rahul, Gandhi Vadra is seen as charismatic, decisive and a good orator. But she has repeatedly said she will only campaign in the constituencies of her mother, Sonia, and her brother.

"The media is trying to make a big issue of it," said a Congress party spokesman, Shakeel Ahmed. "She has said so many times her role is limited to the two constituencies. We should respect that decision."

Gandhi Vadra is often compared to her grandmother, the immensely powerful and polarising prime minister Indira Gandhi, to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984 and her son, Rajiv, who was Gandhi Vadra's father, was killed in a suicide bombing in 1991.

Political analysts say Gandhi Vadra is mediating between an "old guard" within the Congress party that is resisting reforms pushed by 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, and a younger generation of parliamentarians and unelected officials who believe the party must change radically if it is to regain power.

Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist who has written a biography of Sonia Gandhi, said portrayals of the two siblings as rivals were wrong. "It's not a question of Rahul or Priyanka. It will probably be Rahul and Priyanka, given the scale of the challenge that the Congress faces in the election and beyond," he told Reuters.

The BJP has dismissed Gandhi Vadra's efforts, saying the Congress party's faith in one dynasty was its undoing. "The family charisma has faded away ... The real solution to the problem is to make Congress a more structured party. The Congress party solution is [that] if one incumbent in the family fails, the alternative can only be another member of the family," Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the party, wrote in a blog.


Jason Burke in Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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