The first foray

Published : Jan 24, 1998 00:00 IST

Sonia Gandhi's campaign rhetoric, particularly her references to the Bofors scandal and the Ayodhya issue, is proving to be problematic for the Congress(I).

SONIA GANDHI'S campaign speeches have been notable, if anything, for the simple fact that they have been made at all. If there was a method or a calculation in the tone she struck at her different halts on the first round, it remains to be deciphered. The fourth of her campaign halts, at Kochi, brought forth a speech closely akin to her maiden effort at Sriperumbudur - much sentimental reminiscence about the political values that she has inherited, oblique references to the crumbling foundations of governance in the country and assertions of the Congress(I)'s unique claims to be able to remedy the situation. There was little that could be construed in a politically combative sense.

Bangalore - Sonia's second port of call - brought forth the challenge that all the known facts on the Bofors bribery investigation be made public so that the honour of her late husband is vindicated. This was followed by a virtual cry from the heart about the campaign of slander that her family had allegedly been subjected to over the Bofors issue. The following stop at Hyderabad introduced the motif of Ayodhya. Describing her reaction to the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya as one of devastation, she recalled that Rajiv Gandhi had at one point vowed that if there was any such threat he would go personally to the shrine to protect it.

THE campaign rhetoric is deeply problematic on all substantive points. Observers of the Bofors investigation have pointed out that the Government is obliged to utilise the evidence it has so far gathered only for purposes of the law. This is explicitly written into the convention for mutual assistance in criminal matters, under which the documentary evidence was received from Switzerland. Any violation of this proviso at this stage could quite conceivably scupper all chances of obtaining the last few documents from Switzerland that have a bearing on a sixth bank account into which the illicit payoffs were made.

Further, with the definitive identification of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, close friend of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia, as a recipient of money, the scandal is right at the doorstep of the family. And the pattern of dubious conduct established by Rajiv Gandhi through the process of determining the award of the howitzer purchase contract, his consistent failure to provide the required backing and support for the investigations into allegations of payoffs - these have been well enough documented to withstand Sonia's emotive artifices.

Sonia's rather more restrained tone in later public appearances seemed to indicate that her handlers were alive to the risks involved in her raising the Bofors issue. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Behari Vajpayee was among the first to welcome her call for publicising all available evidence on the Bofors payoff. Senior officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) were quoted as saying that the report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that had gone through all the Swiss bank documents received so far would throw light on some key aspects of the case.

There is little doubt that the inferences drawn by the SIT are damaging in the extreme to the dynasty. As a CBI insider once told Frontline, drafting a report on Bofors without naming Rajiv Gandhi as the principal conspirator would be akin to scripting a version of "Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark".

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, meanwhile, lost little time in puncturing Sonia's derisive reference to the inability of six governments to unravel the truth in the Bofors matter. He had only to point to the self-evident truth that the Congress had contrived when in power, and even otherwise, persistently to obstruct the course of the investigations. Sensing an opportunity, Vajpayee intervened with the request that the persons involved in these efforts to block the course of justice be named and prosecuted.

THE references to Ayodhya also elicited a heated response. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and United Front convener N. Chandrababu Naidu questioned the authenticity of Sonia's protestations after five years of silence. And Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, in a more friendly tone, advised her to stay off the contentious terrain of Ayodhya since she was new to politics and knew little of it.

Other spokesmen of the U.F. were more caustic. As against the character created by hagiographers, the Rajiv Gandhi of 1989 was less than convincing in his response to the mobilisation over Ayodhya. Far from opposing religious extremism, he sought a bargain with it. While one town after another was being gutted by communal riots, he cynically sought to claim credit for the peaceful conduct of the shilanyas at Ayodhya in November 1989. And he perhaps aggravated the explosive situation that prevailed by inaugurating his campaign for the general elections from Ayodhya, with the promise to usher in Ram rajya if he was re-elected.

The movement of Muslim votes away from the Congress began then and gathered momentum in subsequent elections. The new orthodoxy within the party, which views the loss of the Muslim vote as a unique legacy of the Narasimha Rao years, is part opportunistic evasion and part supernatural faith in the infallibility of the dynasty. And since the minority voters have in large part established new commitments to political parties uncompromised by a history of duplicity over Ayodhya, it is difficult to see this steady drift being reversed or even arrested with Sonia's entry into politics.

If in its specific details the Rajiv legacy is unlikely to yield much political mileage, the invocation of its general ambience still might. After the indiscretions of her early campaign speeches, Sonia is likely in her next few forays to settle down to a steady staple of generalities - most notably the tradition of public service of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the vision of a modern secular society that inspired them, and the dangers posed by the upsurge of communal forces. Bangalore and Hyderabad perhaps were the exploratory ventures which yielded little of value. Sriperumbudur is likely to set the pattern for future campaign speeches by the Congress' new hope.

The limits to this approach are self-evident. First, Sonia will herself make only a limited number of campaign halts - all carefully stage-managed and conducted under layers of protective security. There will be little by way of a direct interaction or exchange with the voters. For the most part, her emotional message will be taken down to the voters through the mediation of the Congress party machinery and the individuals who man it. That machinery is currently in rather rickety condition and the individuals who control it can agree on little other than Sonia's infallibility. With the Congress(I) already slipping behind in the race to recruit the intense group loyalties that are the most salient feature of the ongoing electoral contest, it remains to be seen what impact the supposed mystique of Sonia will have.

The broad approach that has been chosen for Sonia's campaign forays is, first, to exalt the family and then negotiate its politics. And since the discourse almost wholly centres around the personality of a dead man, there is little risk in placing the greatest possible claim upon the indulgence of the audience. By all accounts, the audience response has been fairly sympathetic, although the Congress bosses' proclamation of a famous electoral triumph is obviously grossly exaggerated.

Indications are strong that the regional leaders of the Congress(I) have already been restored to the old and discredited certitude that the patronage of the Gandhi family is an adequate substitute for genuine mobilisational work at the grassroots levels. This flimsy conviction was one of the most significant causes of the organisational atrophy of the Congress(I). The restoration of dynastic legitimacy may promise some respite, though perhaps no more than transient.

With inputs from T.S. Subramanian in Sriperumbudur, R. Krishnakumar in Kochi and Ravi Sharma in Bangalore.

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