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Priyanka Gandhi takes on key post in opposition challenge to Modi

Priyanka Gandhi, February 2017 in Rae Bareli.
Priyanka Gandhi, February 2017 in Rae Bareli. SANJAY KANOJIA / AFP

India's main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has appointed Priyanka Gandhi to a crucial role in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, ahead of general elections which are due by May.

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The post of party secretary general is the first official foray into politics for the sister of the Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, who took over from their mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Pundits see it as a move to capitalise on the goodwill that the Nehru-Gandhi family continues to generate in many parts of state.

A formidable campaigner for her mother and brother, many have likened the 47-year-old to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, both for her charisma and stunning likeness.

In previous elections, she has pulled large crowds at political rallies in Gandhi strongholds in Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress party has long urged Gandhi to take on a full-time role in politics, given her oratory skills and understanding of the people. But despite being born into the country’s First Family, Gandhi proved reluctant to take centre stage and has seldom made public political statements.

Her decision to take on an official post this time is seen by many as an attempt to motivate and galvanise cadres in Uttar Pradesh and other states where the Congress remains strong.

"My sister, who is capable and hardworking, will work with me,” said Rahul Gandhi following the announcement. “I am personally very happy and excited.”

The state of Uttar Pradesh sends 80 MPs to parliament and is considered a route to power to New Delhi. Gandhi’s assignment will involve choosing candidates and nurturing the eastern sector of the state that has 40 constituencies.

These include Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf Gorakhpur – which provided several union ministers in the current cabinet.

Party insiders say her inclusion will also give the Congress party an edge in a state where it fared poorly in the last general elections of 2014 and 2017 assembly elections.

The ruling Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed into power in 2014 with an absolute majority. But it has lost much of its shine in recent years with rising unemployment, inflation and a farming crisis proving tough issues.

Gandhi’s first political assignment will prove a challenge. But if she delivers in the upcoming polls, the clamour for her joining politics full-time will only get louder.

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