Priyanka Gandhi's spontaneous decision to travel to Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh (UP) to sympathise with the families of tribals after the massacre of 10 persons in a land dispute put the spotlight on her. Despite a thunderous victory in the Lok Sabha elections, UP Chief Minister Adityanath looked vulnerable as Priyanka remained in the limelight when the state administration restrained her in Mirzapur, preventing her travel to the village where the ghastly crime occurred. But the kin of the victims themselves travelled to Mirzapur and poured out the details of the tragedy perpetrated by the trigger-happy upper-caste village chieftain and his associates.
Even as the Congress lies moribund, shocked both by its terrible losses and the uncertainty following the resignation of its president Rahul Gandhi, his sister Priyanka is among the few office-bearers who are functional. Her decision to rush to Sonbhadra reminded old-timers of the way Indira Gandhi, jolted by a huge defeat, had bounced back into political focus within four months of the defeat. The month was July like Priyanka's visit, but the year was 1977. Indira travelled by train, jeep, tractor and finally crossed a river sitting on top of elephant 'Moti' as she determinedly met the dalit victims of an upper-caste massacre in Bihar's remote Belchi. Priyanka's journey was not so arduous, but she too told the Uttar Pradesh government she would not leave for Delhi without meeting the Sonbhadra victims and sent the powerful central and state governments of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into a tizzy.
But all political parallels need not end similarly unless events and people help. The state of the Congress in 1977 was still very strong despite the defeat in North India. But 42 years later, successive defeats and emergence of caste-based parties have diminished the Congress in UP and Bihar, as the party has neither workers nor leaders. Unlike the faction-ridden Janata Party which Indira Gandhi fought, the BJP is a highly disciplined and organised political machine. Yet Priyanka achieved a a firstcomer's advantage, as neither the Samajwadi Party (SP) nor Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) sent their leaders to Sonbhadra. During the last five years, Rahul Gandhi too had visited places where the weaker sections were subjected to atrocities or denial of rights, but there were no Congress workers at the grassroots in states like Odisha, Bihar and UP to show the Congress mattered. Priyanka, who continues to be general secretary incharge of eastern UP, has a big job of reviving the party organisation if Congress has to matter in the state assembly elections.
Two months after the Modi tsunami, opposition parties are not uniformly responding to the hammering they received. The three-caste based parties of the Gangetic Plain - SP and SP in UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar - are still in a political coma. Mayawati rarely speaks, while Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav have not even talked of taking up political programmes on behalf of SP. With Lalu in jail, his family members, especially sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap, are still squabbling.
However, opposition parties in other states are bouncing back quicker than those which lost badly in BJP-ruled states. Mamata Banerjee, who saw the substantive gains of BJP in Bengal, has already struck back. She has got back defectors of her Trinamool Congress in two urban bodies and taken control of the municipalities. She is on an overdrive to make her cadres work and also return the 'cut money' taken from poor beneficiaries of the national rural employment guarantee programme. Mamata also makes the maximum noise against the BJP, compared to all opposition leaders. Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi has adopted a more development-oriented strategy as Delhi elections are early next year. However K Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) is laid back in his approach as the BJP and Congress chipped at Rao's massive vote bank, accumulated in the assembly elections. Kerala's Pinarayi Vijayan has avoided any political moves until he finds an appropriate moment when the negative vibes against him and the CPM subsides.
However, both the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand, which have to face the elections during this year's festive season have become very active, despite the poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections. It was NCP supremo Sharad Pawar who egged the Congress leadership that there is no luxury of a mourning or introspection time for political parties. His advise triggered Maharashtra general secretary incharge Mallikarjun Kharge to appoint a new team to run the state PCC.
Pawar has also told his nephew Ajit Pawar not to ambitiously push the cause of the family's third generation and thereby annoy the party loyalists. Another family-run party Telugu Desham has been racked by desertions after the severe drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections. Its party president Chandrababu Naidu may have to spend more time on fighting corruption cases to be put against him by the new government of his successor and arch-rival Jagan Mohan Reddy.
Even as opposition parties are different in stages of coma and wakefulness, Priyanka's Sonbhadra protest is an opportunity for the Congress that the future of the grand old party lies on the streets of villages and towns.