Will Wayanad turn into another Rae Bareli or Amethi with Priyanka’s electoral entry

With the announcement of Priyanka’s candidacy from Wayanad as Rahul Gandhi vacates it, the constituency could become another pocket borough of the Gandhis as Rae Bareli or Amethi was in Uttar Pradesh.
Will Wayanad turn into another Rae Bareli or Amethi with Priyanka’s electoral entry
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Smiling, evasive and in a hurry to reach her car, young Priyanka Gandhi had laughed off a reporter’s question about her political entry in 1999, the year that her mother became the Opposition Leader of the Lok Sabha for the first time. “You will have to wait a long time for that,” she had said before riding away. Priyanka kept her word. It took her 25 years to contest an election for the first time, despite being an active member of her party, the Indian National Congress, and campaigning for her mother Sonia and her brother Rahul through the decades. 

Even now, it does not quite appear like a planned entry. She will be contesting from Wayanad, a seat vacated by her brother Rahul Gandhi, who also won from Rae Bareli once known as the pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This was the second time that Rahul was winning from Wayanad, though with a reduced margin when compared to 2019. After days of speculation, the Congress chose to have Rahul in Rae Bareli, in Uttar Pradesh, a seat held by his family members – grandfather Feroze Gandhi, grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, relative Arun Nehru and mother Sonia Gandhi. That left Wayanad in Kerala free for Priyanka to make her grand political entry.

In April, before the election in Kerala, Priyanka was seen on top of Rahul’s campaign vehicle, waving fervently to the masses crowding around the roadsides, the terrace-tops and the window rails of their houses to catch a glimpse of the Gandhi siblings. The massive support for Rahul in Wayanad was also the people’s show of discontent against the undemocratic rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, said the voters we spoke to in April for our ground report

And it is in Wayanad that Priyanka will make her electoral debut. Though she had for the longest time appeared reluctant to follow in the footsteps of the rest of her family, Priyanka took the plunge into active politics in 2019, when she became a general secretary of the Congress (in charge of Uttar Pradesh). In our Powertrip column this week, we have written why, after five more years, Priyanka has finally decided to contest the election. 

Will Wayanad turn into another Rae Bareli or Amethi with Priyanka’s electoral entry
An HR problem for the Sangh and why Priyanka decided to contest: Powertrip

“According to a top source in the Congress, Rahul was inclined towards retaining Wayanad as he felt that when large parts of India were rejecting him and the Congress, Wayanad stood with him. However, others in the party felt that the winning streak in Uttar Pradesh for the INDIA bloc was crucial and therefore any signal that Rahul was abandoning Uttar Pradesh would wreak havoc. The compromise was that Priyanka would stand in Rahul’s place in Wayanad,” we wrote.

Priyanka and Rahul campaign in Wayanad before election
Priyanka and Rahul campaign in Wayanad before election

Will Wayanad become a Gandhi family pocket?

Rahul choosing Wayanad in the south in 2019 was akin to his grandmother’s choice of Medak, a constituency in undivided Andhra, back in 1980. Indira Gandhi had contested from Rae Bareli and Medak that year and won both seats. However, she chose Medak, because the voters of Rae Bareli – a seat she held for a decade – had chosen another (Raj Narain of the Janata Party) in 1977, the year the Emergency ended and an election was finally held. Not that Congress let go of Rae Bareli; Arun Nehru, a relative of Indira Gandhi won the seat after a bypoll. Post-Emergency, Indira had briefly shifted to Chikamagalur in the south, where she won in 1978.

It should come as little surprise that voters of Kerala placed their trust in Rahul and Congress for a second time this year (he won with a majority of over 3.6 lakh votes), considering how, after the Emergency, when the rest of India voted out Indira, only the people of Kerala had stood by the Congress. Now, with a consecutive victory of such a large scale, and the announcement of Priyanka’s candidacy, Wayanad might just become another family pocket of the Gandhis, as Rae Bareli or Amethi of Uttar Pradesh.

During Priyanka's road show in Thiruvananthapuram in April
During Priyanka's road show in Thiruvananthapuram in April

The Gandhi family had flocked to the south of the Vindhyas since the late 1970s, whenever they faced political setbacks. Indira Gandhi warmed up to Chikamagalur in Karnataka (1978) and Medak in Andhra Pradesh (1980) in the tumultuous post-Emergency period. Sonia Gandhi too contested from the safe seat of Bellary in Karnataka in 1999, but in the end chose Amethi. But they never contested the same seats in the South more than once. Wayanad has been an exception.

“Wayanad is the Congress' choice under duress. Whether Wayanad will be a Gandhi family bastion will depend on the Congress party's national political fortunes in future. In 2019, Rahul Gandhi chose Wayanad to contest only because it was the Congress' only sure seat in the country, thanks mainly to its ally, the [Indian Union] Muslim League. His contest again in 2024 and now Priyanka Gandhi's candidature from Wayanad is also for no other reason. Galvanising the UDF's prospects in Kerala ahead of the 2026 Assembly polls may also be a reason for Priyanka's candidature. If Congress' political stars improve in states with more national political stake and seats like UP, the Gandhi family may not need Wayanad to be retained as its borough,” says veteran journalist and political observer MG Radhakrishnan.

Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi

Uttar Pradesh constituencies held by Gandhis

Uttar Pradesh had been the family’s safe ground ever since Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, began contesting elections. Interestingly, when Nehru won Phulpur in UP for the first time, he had a co-Member of Parliament (MP), Masuriya Din. Those were days when several constituencies were represented by two members, to ensure enough representation for the SC/ST categories. Between 1952 and ‘62 therefore, Nehru and Masuriya Din were the MPs of Phulpur. The two-MP rule ended by ‘61 and Nehru became the sole MP from 1962 until his death in 1964. However, Phulpur did not become a family bastion, Indira having come to the Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member from UP in 1964. 

When she contested the Lok Sabha election in 1967, she chose the seat held by her late husband Feroze, Rae Bareli. Years later, when it was the turn of her son Sanjay Gandhi to contest the election, he chose Amethi in 1980 but was alive for barely six months after that. Rajiv Gandhi, his brother, took over Amethi in 1981 and held it until his death while serving as Prime Minister in 1991. Sonia, his widow, also chose Amethi in her first election in 1999. Interestingly, she too, like Indira and Rahul, contested from two seats that year – Bellary in Karnataka and Amethi in UP – and won both. In Bellary, she defeated the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj. 

Five years later, in 2004, Sonia passed on Amethi to Rahul and went on to claim Rae Bareli. Though both seats have for long been identified as family pockets, Rahul lost Amethi to the BJP’s Smriti Irani in 2019, forcing him to become the MP of Wayanad. Now, as he goes back to his home turf in UP, the Gandhis may not want to lose Wayanad and the indefinite trust of its voters. Priyanka’s candidacy in Wayanad, though not entirely expected, seemed like the most natural choice for the Congress. 

Priyanka with a child during a road show in April
Priyanka with a child during a road show in April

Priyanka, a crowd-puller

“If you look at the political trajectory of creating family pocket boroughs, this move is exactly that. The BJP and other political rivals are going to hit out at the Gandhi family for extending their sway of dynastic politics to Kerala. But the Congress can justify their choice of fielding Priyanka Gandhi by arguing that she is the best possible alternative as Rahul decides to vacate this constituency. And that they are not abandoning the voters of Wayanad or leaving them in the lurch but in the safe hands of Rahul’s sister, a capable organiser and a crowd puller,” says Ullekh NP, journalist, writer and political commentator.

In April, at the height of the campaign in Kerala, this ‘crowd pull’ was all too clear among the vast line of supporters watching the Gandhi rally pass through the roads of Kalpetta on the day Rahul filed his nomination. Kerala voters, demonstrating their famous political know-how, spoke like experts about Rahul’s assured victory even as they opined that his margin would come down this time. The votes did come down by more than 70,000 but he had to face a strong opponent of the LDF – seasoned politician Annie Raja of the Communist Party of India. While Annie was scathing in her disapproval of the BJP government of India, she was also critical of Rahul’s choice to recontest in Wayanad. The fact that they belonged to parties which allied with the INDIA bloc had put pressure on both sides to justify their fight against each other in Kerala.

Will Wayanad turn into another Rae Bareli or Amethi with Priyanka’s electoral entry
Rahul Gandhi and Annie Raja, allies fighting BJP nationally, are rivals in Kerala

It is not clear if Annie will contest the Wayanad by-election but when she was asked about Priyanka’s candidacy, she seemed appreciative of the Congress choosing a woman leader for the Parliament, where the female percentage has come down from the last term. Women voters of Wayanad also share this opinion. “It is notable that a woman is going to represent our constituency [if Priyanka wins], and she is a national leader. This time no woman candidate had won the Lok Sabha election from Kerala. Annie Raja is also a strong woman national leader, but we do not yet know if she will contest again. Wayanad is a constituency which always leans towards the Congress so I think Priyanka will definitely win,” says Arsha Kabani, a resident of Pulpally in Wayanad.


(With inputs from Haritha Manav)

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