What Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could learn from Mahatma Gandhi

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint, 6 September 2019

Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint
Illustration by Soham Sen for ThePrint

When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in January 1915, someone asked him how much time it would take him to start a people’s movement in India, just like he had done in South Africa. He thought about it and replied, “five years”.

As it happened, it took him only two-and-a-half years.

In December 1916, Raj Kumar Shukla, a farmer leader from Champaran, started chasing Mahatma Gandhi from one city to another to persuade him to visit Champaran. Just a day would be enough, he said, but please do come and see for yourself the exploitation of indigo farmers by the British planters. The farmers were forced to grow indigo on their land for almost nothing in return.

Reluctantly, Mahatma Gandhi gave in to the pressure. He thought he would give it two days. He ended up spending seven months, leaving only after he was able to free the farmers of the exploitation in 1917, and in the process introducing civil disobedience as a tool to fight the British colonial rule, and transforming the Congress party from a club of elite lawyers to a mass movement.

Before Priyanka Gandhi Vadra plans her next customary excursion to Uttar Pradesh, she might want to study Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign strategies.

Political tourism

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is soon likely to become the Congress party’s general secretary in-charge of all of Uttar Pradesh, despite having failed at the job of managing east UP for the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. She couldn’t even save the family seat of Amethi.

Since then, she has taken to political tourism in UP — she makes a flying visit and often returns the same day. A day’s visit to Sonbhadra turned into an overnight stay only because she was detained in a guest house. She did not continue the momentum as she had got the political attention for the day. When the rape victim in the Unnao case was attacked in a road accident that most certainly looked like an attempt to murder, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did not even make her customary flying visit.

It must be obvious to Priyanka Gandhi that she is unlikely to make any discernible difference to the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election with some political tourism here and there, and a tweet-a-day attacking the Yogi Adityanath government. If she is serious about reviving the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, if she is taking on that mantle, the least she needs to do is to move to Lucknow and take charge as the president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee.

She doesn’t appear to be doing any such thing. Like Rahul Gandhi, she seems to think she can have one foot in Delhi and another in UP. This might insulate her from the failure in UP. Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, we were told her real aim was the UP assembly election in 2022. Come 2022, and we will be told that her real aim is the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and she might as well be anointed the Congress president. She wants to have her cake and eat it too.

Planning to fail

One reason she might not go all out in UP is the fear of failure. If she puts all her eggs in the UP basket and they don’t hatch, what will become of her? It’s a funny thing, the fear of failure. You set yourself up for failure because you think you will fail anyway. The Congress party has made failing a default mode. They play to fail in the next election, consoling themselves that they might win the election after this one. Modi-Shah plan to win, the Gandhi family plans to fail.

The way Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been approaching Uttar Pradesh, it suggests that she believes in incremental rather than transformative progress. When politicians take risks and attempt a transformative campaign, they often succeed. Luck favours the brave.

The Modi campaign in 2014 turned a moribund BJP into a giant monolith. In UP, the BJP’s vote share increased from 15 per cent in 2012 (Vidhan Sabha) to 42.3 per cent in 2014 (Lok Sabha). It was not an incremental but a transformative campaign through which V.P. Singh became an unlikely Prime Minister in 1989, defeating an all-powerful Rajiv Gandhi who had 4/5th Lok Sabha seats. It was with a transformative campaign that Arvind Kejriwal went from being an NGO-wallah to the Chief Minister of Delhi in two years flat. And, it was a transformative campaign — promise of farm loan waivers — through which the Congress party recently defeated an entrenched BJP in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Nobody would have believed you if you had said in 1917 that a foreign-returned lawyer-activist could go to Champaran and get the British colonial government to end the exploitation of farmers by the British planters in just seven months. No one in the Congress party had even tried, just like Priyanka Gandhi is not even trying to win UP. If she were to put up an agitational campaign in UP, she might succeed beyond her own expectations.

How parties are built

It is through agitational campaigns that parties are built from the ground up, just like the Lokpal movement created the Aam Aadmi Party or the Ram Janmabhoomi movement made the BJP a national force to reckon with, or how the Champaran Satyagraha took the Congress to the masses.

There was no Congress party in Champaran in 1917. Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography, My Experiments With Truth: “It should be remembered that no one knew me in Champaran. The peasants were all ignorant. Champaran, being far up north of the Ganges, and right at the foot of the Himalayas in close proximity to Nepal, was cut off from the rest of India. The Congress was practically unknown in those parts. Even those who had heard the name of the Congress shrank from joining it or even mentioning it. And now the Congress and its members had entered this land, though not in the name of the Congress, yet in a far more real sense.”

“In consultation with my co-workers I had decided that nothing should be done in the name of the Congress. What we wanted was work and not name, substance and not shadow. For the name of the Congress was the bête noire of the Government and their controllers — the planters. To them the Congress was a byword for lawyers’ wrangles, evasion of law through legal loopholes, a byword for bomb and anarchical crime, and for diplomacy and hypocrisy. We had to disillusion them both. Therefore, we had decided not to mention the name of the Congress and not to acquaint the peasants with the organisation called the Congress. It was enough, we thought, if they understood and followed the spirit of the Congress instead of its letter,” he wrote.

Had Priyanka Gandhi Vadra been Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1917, she would have left Champaran after two days. Gandhi stayed, and Champaran made him the Mahatma.

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