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'Rahul Gandhi knows what India needs'

Last updated on: April 25, 2019 15:24 IST

'Rahul Gandhi understands the pulse of the people.'
'And he's not just got it sitting down; he has worked towards it.'

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

IMAGE: Priya Dutt was one of the first Congress leaders to call for Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. Illustration: Dominic Xaavier/Rediff.com

Priya Dutt is a square "social activist" peg who somehow manages to fit in a round "political" hole.

Fifteen years in politics is still to make her the consummate politician; while she delivers the usual political tropes, she is also capable of answers that could work to her detriment.

On April 29 -- in the fourth phase of the seven phase 2019 election -- 71 constituencies across nine states in India will vote for the next government.

While poll predictions say the government will be formed by the 68-year-old Narendra Damodardas Modi, how much of a fight will Rahul Gandhi, 20 years his junior, give him? Will Modi be able to replicate his 2014 success or will the sheen have worn off?

And will Mumbai North Central, the constituency Priya Dutt lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party's Poonam Mahajan in 2014 -- this election, it votes on April 29 -- welcome her back?

 

In a way, says the 52-year-old Dutt, her political sabbatical has been a blessing.

"For the first two years after I lost the elections, I was very active in politics," she says.

But the pull of social work -- to which both her much-loved actor parents, Nargis and Sunil Dutt, had devoted the latter part of their lives -- was strong.

"You know," she tells Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com pensively, "I am a hands-on kind of person. I began devoting more time to my Nargis Dutt Foundation and I really enjoyed the work I was doing. I realised this is my passion and I could now give it both my time and focus."

To the outside world, however, it looked like a distance had developed between her and the Congress party.

There were rumours that certain factions of the Mumbai Congress had worked against her in 2014, causing her to lose the election by a massive margin of 186,000 votes.

It was one of the biggest upset victories in Maharashtra in 2014.

 

Priya Dutt

IMAGE: Priya Dutt canvasses for votes on Mumbai's Metro. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priya Dutt/Twitter

As the in-fighting in the Mumbai Congress continued, Priya Dutt -- once considered close to Rahul Gandhi -- seemed to increasingly disappear into the sidelines.

In October 2018, she was replaced as secretary of the All India Congress Committee, a post she had held for seven years.

In January 2019, she announced she would not contest the 2019 elections and there seemed to be no move to convince her to change her mind.

Within two months, however, apparently on Rahul Gandhi's request, she announced her candidature.

"There has been some misunderstanding," she laughs, "because I said I am not going to fight, right?'

"But it's just that I thought I could really take a break and spend enough time with my kids who are 11 and 13 now. For me, that's a very crucial age for any child... and I have two boys," she adds.

The curtain she is attempting to draw appears flimsy. During her first campaign in 2005 -- an election necessitated by her father Sunil Dutt's death -- Priya Dutt was back on the road within days of giving birth to her first child. Her second son, too, was born when she was in active politics.

Videos: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

But, she says, "people, especially the workers, were disheartened" by her decision to "step back from electoral politics and focus on my life for a bit".

It was this "disappointment", she says, that made her change her mind.

"It made me think that this is not the right time. The party needs me at this point. Besides, we have been seeing what the country has been going through," she says.

"I asked myself: If my father were here, what would he have done? I know he would have definitely impacted (this situation) in some way. So when I got this opportunity to stand up and fight through politics, I took it. This is my way of giving back."

Rajendra Kumar (his son, Kumar Gaurav, married Sunil Dutt's daughter, Namrata Dutt), Sanjay and Priya Dutt watch as Sunil Dutt files his nomination in 1984.

IMAGE: Rajendra 'Jubilee' Kumar (his son Kumar Gaurav married Sunil Dutt's elder daughter, Namrata Dutt), Sanjay and Priya Dutt watch as Sunil Dutt files his nomination in 1984. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priya Dutt/Twitter

Dutt was one of the first Congress leaders to call for Rahul Gandhi as prime minister, but does not mince her words when she talks about her leader.

In an interview to Rediff.com in 2014, her admiration for what he was trying to do was clear, but she admitted he had "perception problems" and called his interview with Arnab Goswami a PR disaster.

In the five years since, she says, Rahul Gandhi has changed.

 

While Rahul Gandhi has changed, has the Congess changed too?

Commentator Shekhar Gupta, in a recent column, has these questions to ask about India's oldest party: 'Is it a political party heading for a life-and-death battle? Or an NGO, just doing its thing and hoping it will improve the state of the world?'

Priya Dutt has a battle-ready answer.

 

This is not the only perception problem plaguing the Congress.

There are many who feel the Congress now has a yoked leadership. Does that make Rahul Gandhi the face, with Sonia Gandhi firmly holding the strings in the background?

And where does that leave the party itself -- as a dictatorship or a democracy in a democratic country?

The big 'Will she, won't she?' question in the Congress has been answered.

Every election, there would be a deafening clamour for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to enter the political fray; every election, she would demur and assist her family in Amethi and Rae Bareli (her brother has represented the former for three terms and her mother for one; constituencies from which her brother; her mother has represented the latter for three terms.

This year, Priyanka Gandhi has finally taken the plunge, but that is not why she admires the Gandhi scion, says Priya Dutt.

 

There are other leaders she admires in the Congress as well, leaders who don't bear the Gandhi surname.

These leaders, she says, are both "young and mature".

 

The Modi juggernaut that rolled across India in 2014 saw the Congress fall from 206 seats in 2009 to a mere 44 seats in 2014.

Have the five years that followed dented the Modi allure?

Or will the Congress find itself trailing badly once again in the great game of democracy?

"I'm terrible at predictions," laughs Dutt, before agreeing to take a stab.

 

Given her recent sanyas from politics, and her initial reluctance to contest, how would she rate her chances?

And, given her reason for not wanting to contest -- that she needed to spend more time with her family -- her constituents could worry that she might be an absentee MP and that she might not prioritise their needs.

"I take my job very seriously. They've seen me for the 10 years when I was a member of Parliament; I was available 24/7."

"And in these five years," she says, "I was not active politically, but, through my foundation, I have been reaching out to people, though not necessarily from my constituency only."

Since she was not an MP, she felt it would not be right for her to "reach out to my constituency politically".

Priya Dutt

IMAGE: Priya Dutt on the campaign trail. Photograph: Kind courtesy Priya Dutt/Twitter

At the same time, she says, "After all, when you are working 24/7 working for something, you miss out so many things in your life. And then, when you reach a situation where you suddenly have time for all that you have missed out on (her family life, her philanthropic work), it makes you wonder: What is the roadmap ahead for me?"

"A lot of stuff has happened in these five years but, yes, they know me when I was a member of Parliament and they can definitely compare notes."

SAVERA R SOMESHWAR / Rediff.com in Mumbai
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