In ecology, there is something called the competitive exclusion principle. It upholds one of nature’s cruellest truths: that two species competing for the same limited resources cannot coexist, even if they are family. The one with the slightest advantage will eventually dominate and push the other into extinction.

The law tellingly applies in politics as well. Jawaharlal Nehru built on the advantage of having Mahatma Gandhi’s blessings and his father Motilal’s financial support to the Congress to edge out a far more popular Subhash Chandra Bose or Vallabhbhai Patel, Sanjay Gandhi’s brute political dominance ensured Rajiv Gandhi stayed out till his younger brother died in a plane crash.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s appointment as Congress general secretary of eastern Uttar Pradesh before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections portends the imminent curtailment, if not the end, of her brother and party president Rahul Gandhi’s political career. It also sends a rather unflattering message about Rahul. In spite of recent successes in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the party does not fully trust him to lead it to victory in the general elections.

Also read — Fielding Priyanka Vadra means Congress has conceded defeat, Rahul Gandhi has failed: BJP

It needs a second Gandhi.

The Priyanka edge

There is nothing abnormal about Rahul getting a heavy-hitter in his team before the watershed election — which will decide whether the ideology that usurped the seven-decade-old Nehru-Gandhi establishment will strengthen its roots or be dislodged.

But the heavy-hitter in question is Priyanka. Which is why competitive exclusion will set in. She is Rahul’s natural competitor to the same limited and precious resource: the Congress throne.

Priyanka she holds the edge. She has shown a far more instinctive connect and ease with people and party workers, and her resemblance with grandmother Indira Gandhi has been talked about forever.

Also read — Congress makes Priyanka Gandhi general secretary: A sign of shifting balance of power? 

Her 2008 meeting with her father Rajiv’s killer Nalini Sriharan showed her liver for political risk and improvisation. Those close to her say she has inherited her grandmother’s strong manipulative trait, an asset in politics.

Unlike Rahul, she is also believed to be less dependent on their mother and the inner circle of advisers and takes decisions independently.

Alas, the double-edge

I had once asked a very senior Congress leader why Congress is not fielding Priyanka despite Rahul’s litany of failures. He smiled and said: “She is also Priyanka Vadra.”

Priyanka's husband Robert Vadra is under investigation in the Haryana and Rajasthan land scams. The Enforcement Directorate is also probing an undisclosed foreign property case against him involving arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari. Coupled with his frequent brattish behaviour and enjoying an extreme security cover for doing nothing, ‘Damadji’ has become the mascot of corruption and sense of entitlement in public perception.

Priyanka’s formal plunge may prompt the BJP to step up investigation against Robert and discredit her through him.

The other big concern about Priyanka is her rumoured mood swings and temperament. There have been episodes in which, as Lutyens gossip goes, security agencies had to get involved. If true, it could be a debilitating handicap in full-time politics.

Cadre holds the key

The foreboding about Rahul’s political marginalisation comes not from the fact that Priyanka may stage a coup. The Congress high command and its satellites may also have meant Rahul well by adding Priyanka to his campaign arsenal.

But the real powershift will happen on the ground. The cadre will veer towards the more instinctive leader. The smell of a potential winner can be heady.

And when the cadre shifts, power shifts. No force could stop Narendra Modi from becoming the PM candidate in the 2014 elections although the RSS was not entirely comfortable with his ascent and the ‘vyakti pujan’ (personality cult) around him. Many of his own seniormost party colleagues were acting against him. Why?

The Sangh-BJP cadre had made up its mind: It is Modi or none. Power shifted.

Saving Rahul’s political career from Priyanka would be daunting hereafter. The price of each of his failures will be extracted not by his adversaries, but by his very own.