Tasks for a leader

Published : Apr 25, 1998 00:00 IST

Sonia Gandhi's formal ascent to the party has been a slow and measured exercise. But aside from the aura of dynastic legitimacy, it is not apparent that she brings any compelling political assets into her new assignment.

IN a foreword to a commemorative volume for her late husband, Sonia Gandhi in 1992 gave free vent to her extreme sense of distaste for the Indian political milieu. It was, she said, an unforgiving ambience, which possessed and then destroyed the individual. Rajiv Gandhi's entry into politics following the death of his younger brother was, she said, a deeply traumatic experience - one that she fought desperately to avert. But she had finally given in because she knew of the deeper sense of duty, of ineffable destiny, that impelled him to take the step.

As Sonia Gandhi now plunges headlong into the political whirl, it is pertinent to ask what drives her. Has she, seven years after the assassination of her husband, been possessed by the same sense of historic responsibility? Has she, after years of denial, finally realised that it is simply futile to seek escape from immanent destiny? Is she, in a more mundane sense, trying to secure the privileged niche that was afforded to her in public affairs as a token of the nation's sense of gratitude to the political dynasty she married into? Or is she fighting a final, desperate rearguard action to restore the fading halo that surrounds her husband's memory?

Ever since she was propelled to the centre-stage as an autonomous political entity, Sonia Gandhi has been impossible to read. "Enigmatic" is how her fawning admirers chose to describe her seeming resolve never to sully her hands in the gritty business of politics. "Clueless" and "inept" are how a growing number of sceptics chose to characterise the same attributes. The unseemly haste with which she was offered the mantle of leadership immediately after her husband's assassination was accurately read as an indication of the Congress(I)'s utter bankruptcy of resources. And her initial decision to decline the offer, rather than compel the party to look elsewhere for its leader, only instituted a dyarchic situation as an integral element of Congress(I) affairs.

This situation of instability arising out of a hidden power centre ended only with Sonia Gandhi's formal ascent to the leadership of the party in March. But the preceding two steps in that ascent bear recall, if only for some suggestion of the forces that impel the formal restoration of the dynastic principle in Congress(I) affairs.

THE first step was on a surprisingly low-key note. On April 8, 1997, shortly after her predecessor Sitaram Kesri's reckless misadventure in toppling the H.D. Deve Gowda Government had ended with equivocal results for the Congress(I) - in the installation of I.K. Gujral as Prime Minister heading an otherwise unchanged Ministry - Sonia Gandhi announced her formal enrolment as a "primary member" of the party. For one who had repeatedly turned down importunities to take over the leadership of the party, the step bore the stamp of implausible modesty.

Yet the context seemed to suggest a rather transparent set of motivations for Sonia's first measured step into the political domain. The labyrinthine pathways of intrigue that the Bofors conspirators had fashioned to disguise their malfeasance, had partly unravelled to reveal the neck-deep involvement of Sonia's friend, the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, in the illicit payoffs. Further autonomous action by the country's premier investigative agencies could have dredged up more unsavoury details, with embarrassing consequences for the Gandhi family. The fetters had to be locked on and the primacy of the family's interests reestablished within the Congress(I), while the party retained its influence over the ruling United Front coalition.

The Bofors investigations went into a slough of neglect under the Gujral administration. But another major irritant was rapidly obtruding the troubled interface between the Congress(I) and the U.F. The Jain Commission which inquired into the conspiracy aspects of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination was wending its erratic way towards an "interim report" - a melange of unsubstantiated assertions, baseless conjectures and cloying assertions of loyalty to Rajiv Gandhi that had objective observers scoffing in disdain. Initially, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) responded to the report in a subdued fashion. It merited discussion, though not the kind of precipitate action that would destabilise the U.F. Government and benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party, resolved the CWC. It was left to Arjun Singh, the senior Congressman who continues to wear his proximity to Sonia Gandhi as a badge of honour in inner party councils, to raise the stakes abruptly, setting in train the sequence of events that culminated in the 12th general elections.

The magnitude of the disaster that the Congress(I) had invited became evident shortly after the general elections were notified, as one after the other, party notables began voting with their feet for a future under the BJP. Loyalty to Rajiv Gandhi, in its most grossly overdone version, was producing an effect quite opposite to what was intended. Sonia's decision to enter the campaign fray on behalf of the Congress(I) was, in the context, quite clearly an effort to requite her sense of obligation to a party that had taken the extreme risk of self-destruction in order to honour the memory of her husband. The extinction of the Congress(I) would, in the family's shrewd calculation of its long-term interest, also have meant the end of its salience in public affairs. The privileges that had survived through the seven years of direct and indirect Congress(I) influence at the Centre would clearly not have lasted far into a BJP Government's tenure.

The final two steps in the ascent were clearly in the nature of a defensive reaction to circumstances that tended rapidly to go beyond the control of the Gandhi family and its retainers. In the event, the campaign that Sonia conducted for the Congress(I) was also in the nature of a rearguard action. It succeeded in holding ground for the party, though it fell far short of recovering any of the political loyalties that had been lost to the Congress(I) through the years of drift that followed Rajiv Gandhi's rather erratic leadership.

IN formally consecrating the dynastic principle once again as the sole basis of legitimacy, the Congress party does away with the situation of dyarchy that prevailed within for close to seven years. Although much was done in its name through this period, few people knew how far each of these deeds enjoyed the active endorsement of the dynasty. It was an attitude that was shrewdly summed up by Congress party observers as one of proximity, distance and convenience. The family chose to be associated with certain decisions as long as it did not entail any political costs, but would not hesitate to disown them at the slightest hint of turbulence.

Illustratively, when Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister chose to allocate a rather generous sum of Rs.100 crores to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF) in the Budget for 1991-92, the Opposition was singularly unamused. It was supposedly a time of financial austerity and the RGF, though associated with a former Prime Minister's name, was still no more than a private foundation. It was rumoured then that the budgetary provision was made following broad hints thrown from "quarters close to Sonia Gandhi". Few people know the truth, but when political controversy broke out, Sonia was quick to suggest that the allocation be withdrawn.

Shortly afterwards, some Congress(I) MPs were contacted over telephone and told that they would soon be granted an audience by Sonia. The move was invested with additional significance by the fact that it came a day after the Congress(I) had suffered an embarrassing defeat on the floor of the Rajya Sabha. But just as speculation began on the intents behind the move, another series of telephone calls went out cancelling the proposed audience.

In the subsequent months, the Sonia factor became a favoured invocation for those fighting a turf war against the Central leadership of the Congress(I). S. Bangarappa, during his troubled tenure as Chief Minister of Karnataka, sought to win her favour by offering a Rajya Sabha ticket to her faithful private secretary, Vincent George. Rather inconvenienced in his effort to establish a viable balance between loyalists and adversaries, P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister and Congress(I) president, brusquely turned down the proposal. The Sonia camp was then quick with the explanation that Bangarappa had acted entirely on his own in the effort to draft George into the Rajya Sabha.

The following years brought a more purposive set of interventions. Sonia made a dramatic entry at the All India Congress Committee session held in Delhi in June 1994, received a standing ovation from the crowd, but declined Narasimha Rao's request to go to the dais and address the gathering. A few weeks later, she pointedly turned down an invitation to participate in a party rally marking the completion of three years of Narasimha Rao's administration. Shortly afterwards, she chose not to attend a reception hosted by President Shankar Dayal Sharma for his predecessor R. Venkataraman, in evident pique at the latter's less than fulsome account of her husband's political skills in his memoirs.

THE cauldron really began to boil over in January 1995, with the Congress party in a state of shock from a succession of debacles in Assembly elections, riven with dissensions and racked by revelations of rampant corruption. Arjun Singh chose the moment for a dramatic resignation from the Union Cabinet, bringing the alleged lack of progress of investigations into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination to the foreground of political contention. A few months later, he left the Congress(I), setting up an alternative vehicle for the furtherance of the party's traditional values in league with N.D. Tiwari, Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Sheila Dixit, and a few others. Although absent from the convention where the split was formalised, Sonia's influence over it was palpable. She had, all through the preceding days, reportedly sought to avert the parting of ways, but finally conceded defeat. Even so, she did little to indicate her explicit support for the breakaway group.

Later that year, Sonia made a highly publicised visit to Amethi, where she emitted a virtual cry from the heart about the supposed lack of seriousness of the official investigation into her husband's murder. She seemed to retreat into a shell after that. Little was heard from her through the next few months, as the rival Congress parties set under way their campaign preparations. She was not associated with the electoral efforts of either camp, and preferred to retain her counsel all through the initial months of the U.F. administration.

Whether it was the quickening pace of investigations into the Bofors scandal or the accelerated decline of the Congress(I) that prompted the decisive emergence from her shell, is now largely immaterial. More germane to the situation are the political skills and assets she brings to the game. Although she was constantly at Rajiv's side, it is far from evident that much of value would have rubbed off on her as her husband floundered his way through an undistinguished prime ministerial tenure. The last seven years of relative seclusion, sporadic political interactions and limited personal contacts with a favoured few, could also not have been a tremendous learning experience. Aside from the aura of dynastic legitimacy, which is of no more than transient interest and value, it is not apparent that Sonia brings any compelling political assets into her new assignment. The sceptics perhaps have sufficient justification to question how much longer she will be able to sustain the holding operation on behalf of the Congress(I).

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