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Politics

India's opposition steps up challenge to Modi with Priyanka Gandhi

INC pins hopes on popularity of Indira's granddaughter as polls show no majority

Many say Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is the spitting image of her hugely popular late grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's main opposition party has put the charismatic younger sister of leader Rahul Gandhi in a key front-line position, in what could be a pivotal move in its bid to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi in general elections in May.

The Indian National Congress announced on Wednesday that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had been appointed party general secretary for the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, a crucial state in India's north that accounts for 80 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house.

"I'm very happy that my sister will work with me now," Rahul told reporters. "She is very capable and hardworking."

This marks the first time Vadra has been thrust into front-line politics. She has so far confined her role in the party to campaigning for her brother and mother in their constituencies.

The 47-year-old, many say, bears a striking resemblance to her hugely popular late grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was nicknamed the "Iron Lady" of India.

By giving the mother of two a more prominent role, the INC hopes it can capitalize on her popularity, and maintain the momentum it generated in state elections late last year. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party lost power in three important states in December. 

A nationwide poll released on Jan. 24 showed an alliance of two regional parties likely winning 51 of the Uttar Pradesh seats in May. That contrasts sharply with the results of the 2014 general election, when the BJP took 71 seats and one of its allies took a further two. 

The ABP News-CVoter survey also predicted that neither the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance nor the United Progressive Alliance of the INC would secure the 272 seats needed for an outright majority. It forecast 233 wins for the NDA, 167 for the UPA and 143 for other parties.

The selection of eastern Uttar Pradesh is of huge significance. The region includes Modi's constituency of Varanasi, and INC leaders will hope deploying such a popular figure there will add impetus to its campaign to defeat the prime minister. 

BJP leaders, on the other hand, have claimed the move shows Rahul Gandhi lacks leadership qualities and needs "a crutch" from within his own family.

The "BJP is a party of workers, was formed by workers and is dedicated to the country," Modi said to party members on Wednesday. "Decisions in our party are not based on a family's wish, but they depend on what workers want."

"Unlike in most cases where family is the party, for the BJP the party is our family," he added.

Rahul and Priyanka's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was a prominent freedom fighter and the first prime minister of independent India. Their father Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister when Indira was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984.

Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 during an election campaign, and his Italian-born wife Sonia took charge of the party after turning down calls to lead it for a number of years. Rahul succeeded his mother as INC president in December 2017.

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