It's a choice that a lot of people may have to make. One of them is the heir apparent in a democracy, itself a contradiction in terms. The other radiates charm and capability in a way that remind people of her grandmother. Neither has been tested yet. Only one of them is in active politics. And yet, sooner than we imagine, they could be the subject of a choice that will ensure only one of them makes it to the top.
They come from the first family of Indian politics, with a lineage that includes names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. They inherit a long and chequered legacy of power, personality and even death (having lost both their father and their grandmother to assassination). They are the most sought-after political faces by the media. And also the most elusive. Together, they are engaged, along with their party, in a pitched battle to regain Uttar Pradesh in the ongoing Assembly elections.
They are siblings too. A comparison, therefore, between Rahul Gandhi and his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is inevitable. It therefore becomes necessary to factor in a discussion that is already going on, albeit in the various vernaculars of Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country. The big question being asked is: who among the two siblings is destined to be more successful politically? In fact, the bigger question that can't be ruled out in the existing situation is: if you had to choose, which of them would you want to see as the leader of the nation?
Rahul may be the heir apparent, but will Priyanka's evident charm and latent capability pitch her in the fray too?
Let's imagine a scenario. Let's assume Rahul, the Congress heir-apparent and its 'chosen one', fails in UP, as he has in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, to name a few prominent and recent debacles. What if all the plans and positions of Congress regarding making Rahul the Prime Minister of the nation don't work in 2014? What if the Congress realises its fortunes are safer in the hands of Priyanka Gandhi? What if there is a clamour within the party to elevate Priyanka to a more responsible and powerful position? In any case, by her uncanny resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, she does inherit the mystical aura that the former Prime Minister displayed. Who knows what that resemblance and aura might do in future?
Whom will you choose in a situation where - in a tragic show of political rivalry among India's best-known siblings - the choice is narrowed down between the two? Rahul and Priyanka may belong to the same illustrious progeny and might share the most recognisable surname in India. Yet when it comes to their styles, they represent two distinct schools of political behaviour. (There are many who wonder when is Priyanka Gandhi going to join politics. I think it can easily be argued she already has. That she chooses to 'come out' as and when she wants is irrelevant as long as the ordinary voters identify with her).
Please resist throwing that clichéd 'dynasty worship' barb around. You can also keep the familiar 'fair skin' fixation critique to yourself. The fact is Priyanka is leagues ahead of elder brother Rahul as far as political acumen, charisma and appeal is concerned. And her gender has little to do with it.
Rahul may have everything at stake in the ongoing elections. Yet his style is almost always about restraint and distance. While politics is all about passionate demagogy, Rahul comes across as an awkward and incoherent speaker - uncomfortable with words and in body language. This is not to suggest politics is all about fiery speeches. But Rahul looks guarded. He does make the efforts to blend in with his bearded look and folded sleeves, yet he looks cautious. Caution doesn't go well in politics and can easily be detected. If you don't put much at stake, you won't go very far. Rahul, by refusing to assume complete leadership of the party in UP to the extent of not even claiming to be a Chief Ministerial aspirant, must have disappointed a large part of his voters.
Priyanka, on the other hand, as has been evident during her various campaigns in UP and outside, is a natural at charming her listeners and followers. She takes to people like a fish does to water. She is at ease, confident and extremely articulate. Her effortless connection with her constituency (in broader terms) is a far cry from her brother's almost desperate reaching out. Agreed, Rahul is as big a draw as Priyanka is. But there is a crucial difference. While Rahul needs the support of a structured backdrop as well as his accompanying retinue to make an impact, Priyanka can hold on her own even in unstructured situations without a dais or audience.
Politics unfortunately is a victim of the tyranny of charm, charisma and character. Some have argued Rahul's subdued style does not mean he is a bad leader. But politics is also about perception. There is a large section of Indians not exactly wrong in perceiving Rahul to be weak, indecisive and incoherent. Priyanka, it seems, is well aware of how perception creates leaders. By winning over her followers, and even detractors, it is as if she is poking fun at the popular desire to see her in politics. The truth is: she already is.
It may be only a matter of time before the Congress looks up to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for its redemption. There may be a situation where her cameos during elections may not work. That she may be seen more often in one of the more hallowed chambers of 24, Akbar Road - even before 2014 - can't be ruled out. Rahul, Sonia and the rest of the Congress perhaps already know it.