LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the latest entrant into politics from India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, made her debut on Monday with a roadshow drawing thousands to see her in the most populous state, months before a general election due to be held by May.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi pulled a surprise last month by appointing his younger sister a party general secretary. She will also be its face in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the highest number of lawmakers to the lower house of parliament and is currently dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But a string of BJP defeats in state elections late last year and rising discontent over a weak farm economy and lacklustre jobs growth have weakened Modi’s position, which an increasingly aggressive Congress is looking to capitalize on.
The 47-year-old Priyanka - she is usually referred to by just her first name - bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and is known for her gifts as a speaker able to connect with voters.
Congress hopes that the eyeballs she’s able to generate will turn into votes.
“It’s like Indira Gandhi has come back,” said Fuzail Ahmed Khan, 45, a Congress supporter. “The state’s farmers want Rahul Gandhi to be prime minister, Priyanka to be chief minister.”
Indira Gandhi, India’s only woman prime minister and known as the “Iron Lady”, was criticised for suspending civil liberties for nearly two years starting in 1975. The Hindu nationalist BJP calls Priyanka’s appointment an extension of Congress’s “dynastic politics”.
Posters of Priyanka lined the streets of the state capital, Lucknow, and hundreds of Congress supporters, accompanied by drummers, chanted her name as she emerged from the airport with her brother.
The siblings continuously waved at supporters from atop a bus and then later from an SUV during the drive from the airport to their state office.
At a stopover, Rahul Gandhi grabbed a microphone and said the appointments of Priyanka and lawmaker Jyotiraditya Scindia as state party leaders were aimed at beyond the general election and bringing Congress into power in Uttar Pradesh.
“If there is a heart of the country, it is Uttar Pradesh,” he said to loud cheers, Priyanka standing by his side. “They’re definitely focused on the parliamentary election but the aim also is to form a government in the state. We’ll bring a government of youth, poor and peasants.”
But it won’t be easy for the brother-sister combination in Uttar Pradesh, a poor state of 220 million people where two regional caste-based parties now compete for power with the BJP and Congress is only a marginal player.
The BJP won 73 of the 80 seats in the state in the last general election. BJP President Amit Shah said last week the party would win 74 seats there this year.
Although Priyanka has helped manage elections for her brother and her mother, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, she has never held an official party post until now.
“I hope that we can together start a new kind of politics,” she said in an audio message shared by Congress, but she did not make a speech in Lucknow amid fears, political analysts say, she could overshadow her brother.
Since the announcement of Priyanka’s entry into politics, India’s financial crime-fighting agency Enforcement Directorate has questioned her husband, Robert Vadra, in a case relating to alleged ownership of 1.9 million pounds ($2.45 million) of undisclosed assets abroad. His lawyer and Congress have dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
Priyanka, who drew more 78,000 followers soon after joining Twitter on Monday and even before sending a single tweet, will spend three days in Lucknow meeting workers from more than 40 constituencies.
From 21 seats in the 2009 general election in Uttar Pradesh, Congress’ tally fell to just two in 2014.
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Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Nick Macfie