In an unprecedented move, India’s main opposition Congress party has given 40 percent of its tickets to female candidates for the ongoing assembly elections in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, also the country’s most populous with more than 200 million residents.
The driving force behind the Congress move is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the party’s current president, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. Priyanka is also the younger sister of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Despite belonging to India’s most prominent political family, the 50-year-old – married to businessman Robert Vadra and mother of two children – is a late entrant to active politics and had so far confined herself to campaigning for her mother and brother during the parliamentary elections.
That changed in 2019 when she was given the charge to turn Congress fortunes around in politically-crucial Uttar Pradesh, a state the party ruled for decades before the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and caste-based regional parties in the 1990s.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Priyanka shares her views on the need to empower more women, the BJP’s religious politics targeting minorities, mainly Muslims, and what her party is doing to resist it.
Al Jazeera: What was the idea behind giving 40 percent tickets to female candidates in Uttar Pradesh? Are you doing this knowing fully well that it is not a state where Congress has a significant presence? In other words, since you know you won’t win many seats, then why not make a strong feminist statement?
Priyanka Gandhi: I would say that’s a rather cynical way of looking at what is a pioneering step forward for the full participation of women in Indian politics. Uttar Pradesh is the largest state in India, it greatly influences the nation’s politics. It also happens to be one of the most deeply entrenched patriarchies in the world. What we are doing is challenging this patriarchy right from within it. The idea, not just of giving 40 percent tickets to women, but also of creating a separate manifesto for their empowerment by giving them employment opportunities, laying out plans for their health, education, safety and upliftment is to give them their rightful due. Women are treated with condescension as a political force by most political parties in India. An example of this is that the ruling party’s flagship programme for women addresses them as “daughters” and consists of handing them one free gas cylinder per year!
In a polity divided into the lines of caste and religion, women can be an immense driving force for change if they consolidate and become cognisant of their own collective political power. They can be instrumental in lifting the politics of the nation above narrow divisions and demanding a focus on development, health, education, employment, economics and other issues that deeply affect the public. It is essential to bring women to the centre of political agenda and discourse. We are happy to have spearheaded this change.
Al Jazeera: Do you expect the move to give Congress dividends in the long run or is this a one-off thing? What are the steps to create a political culture that gives women more visibility in Indian politics, particularly in your party?
Gandhi: It is certainly not a one-off thing. In the last three years since I have been given charge of UP, we have consistently stood up for women. Whether it was the Unnao rape cases, the Shahjahanpur case, the Hathras case, or for that matter most cases of heinous crimes against women, as well as other issues affecting women like the dismal wages being paid to assistant teachers or front-line health workers, the Congress party not only fought for justice for them but was instrumental in pressurising the government to take action. We will continue to fight for women with even more strength in the future.
On the political front, we have fielded 40 percent of women candidates in this election. We will encourage and support them to nurture their constituencies and become the voice of women in Uttar Pradesh. Many of them are brilliant women, brave and driven with the ambition to help their sisters. Some of them have suffered immense hardships. These include the mothers of rape victims, a lady who was belaboured by the police simply for taking a representation demanding an increase in wages to the chief minister, another whose clothes were torn off in public when she presented herself for a local election, another whose daughter was gang-raped and imprisoned on false charges two days after her wedding.
They are extremely courageous women and I see great potential in them. It has not been easy for them to transition into a political role, many have faced resistance from society and even internally from within our party but they have been remarkably resilient. On my part, I have fully supported and protected them. Aside from this, we will encourage even more women to fight the corporation and municipality elections in October and we will create an influx of young women leaders in our party organisation so that we become a fighting force for the empowerment of women in politics.
Al Jazeera: You also gave tickets to Muslim activists like Sadaf Jafar and the mother of a Muslim man killed during anti-citizenship law protests. What did you have in mind when you decided on their names?
Gandhi: Whether it was Sadaf, the mother of rape victims, the mother of an innocent boy killed during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement, the tribal boy in Sonbhadhra or many others like them whom we have given tickets to, each had one thing in common: the crimes against them were perpetrated by those who either had political power themselves or were connected to it. Giving them tickets to fight the election was to send a strong message that political power rightfully belongs to the people of this country. It is meant to enable and uplift them, not to oppress and destroy them. We said to them: “Power did this to you, now take it into your own hands and fight for yourself. Use it to help others who suffer like you did.”
Al Jazeera: Uttar Pradesh is considered one of the unsafest places for women. What are some of the things you hope to change if you get into a position to influence political decisions?
Gandhi: We have proposed many steps to improve safety for women in our women’s manifesto. If we form the government in Uttar Pradesh, 25 percent of all recruits into the police force will be women so that policewomen are present at every police station to assist victims of crimes against women. Presently, when such crimes are committed, in most cases the police and administration protect the perpetrator. The first information reports (FIRs or police reports) are not filed, the woman’s family is pressurised and the woman herself is vilified and blamed. We intend to bring in a law that allows punitive action to be taken on any public servant who impedes the filing of an FIR within 10 days.
We are proposing a six-member special empowered commission consisting of female judges, activists and senior civil servants to look into cases of vilification and persecution of female victims of crime and their families. We have also announced that we will form a legal cell with female members active and available in every district to assist victims of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence etc. More than anything else, I would like to be able to effect a change in the social and political mindset of people. I believe that bringing women’s issues to the centre of public discourse and the increased participation of women in politics will drive this change.
Al Jazeera: The ruling BJP is trying its best to polarise the UP election along religious lines. What is Congress’s plan to counter this narrative?
Gandhi: The BJP has a two-pronged strategy to garner votes in every election. It polarises the electorate and it distributes rations and doles in a year or so before the election. Both these aspects of the BJP’s strategy reveal its truth. Its policies are designed to benefit its monopolist financiers and ensure that a large section of the populace remains poor. Its performance on employment, inflation, support to small and medium industries and strengthening agriculture has been abysmal.
Keeping people poor makes them dependent on, and grateful for, the paltry doles handed out to them. Sowing divisiveness in their minds enables the discussion to be fully diverted from governance and delivery. The BJP uses issues that emotionally charge the public, divide the electorate along religious and caste lines and ensure that it remains in power.
I believe that driving a change of narrative towards development, jobs and opportunity for women and young people can counter the BJP’s divisive narrative or for that matter the caste-based politics of other political parties too. India has the largest youth population in the world. The current narrative is making use of this youthful population by directing its energy towards divisiveness and negativity. This same youthful energy can be directed towards a more positive and constructive national agenda. Bringing to the fore the fact that divisiveness does not resolve the immense problems being faced by the public is extremely important. People are indeed suffering. A recent survey of vulnerable households across 14 states revealed that 66 percent of households had been hit by income loss, 45 percent are in debt and 79 percent have faced food insecurity in the last two years. These are staggering figures.
On another note, I strongly believe the hypermasculine, jingoistic narrative of the BJP can be countered by a hyperfeminine, egalitarian narrative. By hyperfeminine, I mean a movement that aggressively asserts femininity and demands equality across the board. Women can effectively consolidate and alter the political narrative. Women are the backbone of society, they must be made to understand that they can also be the backbone of politics in the country. They can drive change.
Al Jazeera: What took you so long to enter active politics? And are you the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh?
Gandhi: My brother and I had a rough childhood as both my grandmother in whose home we grew up and my father was assassinated when we were very young. I wanted my children to have a simple and normal childhood. I did not want to expose them to the harshness of public life so I stayed out of politics except for managing my mother’s and brother’s constituencies and focus on bringing them up and making sure I was there for them. And I am not the Congress party’s chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. I think it would be premature to make such assumptions. Let’s wait till the results are out.