What Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics means for India’s elections

The biggest democracy in the world is due to elect its leader for the next five years in fewer than 100 days. And the race has just become more interesting.

On Wednesday, the main Indian opposition Congress party announced that Priyanka Gandhi – the younger sister of party leader Rahul Gandhi and one of the youngest scions of the country’s most fabled political family – had officially entered politics.

The popular 47-year-old accepted a senior position and will be in charge of the party’s affairs in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to the 545-strong lower house of parliament and has produced nine Indian prime ministers.

The news had Congress staff across India dancing and burning crackers.

‘Crowd-puller’

Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment is expected to significantly help her brother in mounting a credible challenge to the dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In the last elections in 2014, Congress saw its seat count in the lower house of parliament fall to just 44, while its vote share in Uttar Pradesh dropped to about eight percent.

Analysts said the party needed new ideas and new faces to revive their fortunes.

“This was in the offing,” Said Naqvi, a journalist and political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“She [Priyanka Gandhi] is a definite a crowd-puller and this decision will certainly weigh on the ruling BJP’s gameplay now.” 

Political dynasty

Priyanka Gandhi’s family has long dominated Indian politics.

Her great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister of independent India; her grandmother, Indira, and father, Rajiv, were also prime ministers, while her mother, Sonia, has been a Congress party president.

Priyanka Gandhi herself is no stranger to politics but had confined herself to Amethi and Raebareli, constituencies which are represented by her brother and mother respectively.

She is married to businessman Robert Vadra, who the BJP has accused of corruption in his business dealings. The Congress party has dismissed the allegations as “politically motivated”.

In recent months, Congress has been on an upward curve, wresting power from the BJP in December’s regional elections in the key states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

The results dealt Modi his biggest defeat since taking office in 2014, boosting the opposition before the national polls, when more than 900 million eligible voters are expected to pick the country’s members of parliament who, in turn, will elect the prime minister.

‘Game-changer’

So far, most opinion polls have the BJP leading the race, with Modi’s popularity remaining high.

The outcome, however, is not seen as a foregone conclusion.

This month, the leaders of the regional Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) announced the creation of a potentially formidable coalition aiming to challenge Modi. 

Meanwhile, in a show of strength, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal, a few days ago organised a massive rally attended by most of the parties opposing the BJP.

And now, Priyanka Gandhi’s official foray into the state’s politics is expected to add more pressure on Modi and his ruling party.

“Priyanka’s entry is a game-changer,” Jai Prakash, a farmer from Amethi, told Al Jazeera.

“People see a reflection of Indira Gandhi in her. She is more charismatic than Rahul,” he added.

“She is Congress’s trump card.”

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