The last straw

Print edition : January 10, 1998

THE lady has finally broken her silence. But she has yet to speak. After months of feverish speculation on "will she or won't she," the imperiously titled 'Office of Sonia Gandhi', issued a cryptic statement on December 29, 1997 announcing her decision to campaign for the Congress(I) in the 1998 elections. In keeping with her mystique-enhancing, enigmatic style, Sonia Gandhi did not care to address a press conference or give a television interview or even issue a statement in her own name to announce this "historic" decision. Instead, a statement, signed by her secretary V. George, was issued. It said: "A large number of Congress workers from all over the country have requested Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to take active interest in the affairs of the Congress Party which is at the moment passing through a very crucial phase. On 17th December 1997, the Congress president conveyed to Mrs. Gandhi the unanimous request of the extended Congress Working Committee to campaign for the party at this difficult moment. Mrs. Gandhi has acceded to these requests. Details for putting this decision into practice are being worked out by the AICC."

Congress president Sitaram Kesri attended the party's regular press briefing to announce the momentous news. Although Sonia loyalists have been attacking Kesri openly, Kesri was ostensibly relieved that she had at last taken on the "burden" of campaigning for the Congress and plugging the holes in the sinking ship. Whether this "sense of relief" will give way to apprehension and hostility will be clear if and when Sonia takes over the mantle of Congress leadership, leaving Kesri floundering on the sidelines.

That Sonia Gandhi's presence in the campaign will be more than cosmetic is already clear. Within four days of the announcement, Sonia Gandhi's office became actively involved in the party's election campaign - appointing new spokespersons, poring over computer printouts of constituency profiles, meeting Congress workers from all over the country at 10 Janpath. The Congress' main spokesperson, V. N. Gadgil, has asserted that Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign will make "a world of difference" to the party in the coming elections. Her decision, he said, had "enthused, inspired and electrified" Congress workers all over the country.

If the obsequious crowds thronging 10 Janpath are any indication, Gadgil's words are not entirely untrue. On December 9, when Sonia Gandhi turned 51, leaders and workers made a beeline for her residence with bouquets. The scene was re-enacted with greater gusto after the December 29 announcement with Congress workers bursting firecrackers, breaking into dance and shouting sycophantic slogans.

But for all that, Sonia's entry has so far failed to make a decisive impact on the disintegrating Congress edifice. Her erstwhile loyalists who left the party in recent days show no signs of coming back. Sonia's efforts to bring about a truce between Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress and the official Somen Mitra-led Pradesh Congress Committee in West Bengal backfired and Mamata was expelled from the Congress on December 19. A defiant Mamata made it clear that her break with the Congress is final - Sonia or no Sonia. Likening Sonia Gandhi's decision to the arrival of a doctor after the patient is dead, Mamata stated that Sonia's entry would make no difference to the Congress. Even more surprising is ace Rajiv-loyalist Mani Shankar Aiyar's decision to stick with Mamata rather than go back to "Madam". On December 18, Mani Shankar Aiyar "dissociated" himself from the Congress in protest against the party's failure to strike a deal with Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which has formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mani Shankar Aiyar chose to address a press conference at Jawahar Bhavan, the headquarters of the Sonia-led Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, and claimed that the Congress would win 30 seats in Tamil Nadu if "Madam" campaigns, but now he himself has deserted Madam. The official reason for his "dissociation" from the Congress was that by pushing the AIADMK into the BJP's arms "Tamil Nadu's sacred secular land has been thrown open to the BJP". This, however, has not prevented him from joining Mamata Banerjee, who is willing to usher in the BJP into the secular land of West Bengal! More damaging than Mani Shankar Aiyar's opportunism though is the decision of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) to stick with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the United Front rather than go back to the Congress even after Madam has decided to campaign.

The impact of the "Sonia factor" will be felt only when the election campaign gains momentum towards the end of January. However, her December 29 decision raises a number of questions. What has motivated her to take the plunge? And how far is she willing to go? What is behind the timing (or mistiming) of her decision? How far can she galvanise the moribund Congress? And finally what will her entry mean to the people and the country at large?

Sonia's decision to campaign for the party was hardly a surprise because she has been hobnobbing with Congress leaders and playing a behind-the-scenes role for a long time. When she turned down the unanimous request of the Congress Working Committee to lead the party in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991, people believed that she was genuinely uninterested in politics. She had carefully cultivated the "I hate politics" image, and claimed to have "fought like a tigress" to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from joining politics because she knew that it would destroy her marriage and family. But within a couple of years of the assassination, Sonia Gandhi's hatred for politics seems to have evaporated; her residence became a place of pilgrimage for every passing Congressman, to whom she offered darshan, along with inscrutable smiles and unspecified blessings. By 1995, the anti-Narasimha Rao faction was openly rooting for her to take over the Congress party. Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari broke away from the Congress, claiming to have her blessings, but the lady did not step out into the arena. She spoke out for the first time on the occasion of Rajiv Gandhi's birth anniversary on August 20, 1995 in Amethi and criticised the Narasimha Rao Government for not speeding up the investigation into the assassination. But, despite speculation, she did not take part in the 1996 general elections. It was in 1997 that she became a primary member of the Congress. She followed this up with an address to the All India Congress Committee's plenary session in Calcutta in August.

Clearly, all the entreaties from the Arjun Singhs and Vijayabhaskara Reddys had an effect, and the lady was toying with the idea of joining active politics. The opportunity came in the shape of the Jain Commission report. If Sitaram Kesri's petulant egoism was responsible for the fall of the Deve Gowda Government, Sonia Gandhi must get the credit for bringing down the Gujral Government and foisting mid-term elections on the country. From the very beginning, Sonia loyalists, who claimed to act in concord with 10 Janpath, demanded the removal of the DMK Ministers as a minimum condition for the party's continued support to the Gujral Government. When the United Front refused to give in, the Congress had perforce to withdraw support. Since Sonia Gandhi was directly (if silently) behind the decision, it was only natural for the Congress leaders to expect her to campaign for the party. For better or for worse, Congressmen are convinced that their fortunes lie with the Nehru-Gandhi family and Sonia is its representative.

Sonia Gandhi took her own time to decide. It is possible that she developed cold feet when she saw that the Jain Commission report was not making an "emotive" impact on the people, least of all the people of Tamil Nadu. The delay in her announcement led to an exodus from the Congress. It was when she saw that the Congress was fast sinking and that its death would mean an end to her privileged queen mother status that Sonia Gandhi appears to have decided to come to the aid of the party. But even now she does not seem to have made up her mind whether to lead from the front (and face the flak, particularly from a vicious 'Rome raj vs. Ram raj' campaign of the BJP) or merely campaign in some constituencies. Her December 29 announcement is more in the nature of testing the waters. But politics is a whirlpool with its own momentum and the logic of events might drive her to contest the elections and become the pre-eminent leader of the party. Some of her former loyalists who left the Congress have already stated that Sonia campaigning for a Kesri-led Congress is not enough; she must replace Kesri. It remains to be seen whether she will take such a risk.

What will be Sonia's impact on the country's politics? Gadgil may be optimistic about her making "a world of difference", but it remains a mystery just how a lone individual with no experience in mass politics, no known political ideology, no concrete policies or programmes will make such a difference. That she was born and brought up in Italy is not the only minus point for Sonia Gandhi. Gadgil and company never tire of telling us that the Congress had been led by foreign-born women such as Annie Besant and Nellie Sengupta in the past. The comparison is not just far-fetched but a trifle odious. Annie Besant and her ilk devoted a lifetime to India and were actively involved in the political life of the country. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, just happened to marry a man who happened to be the son of the Prime Minister of the country. In all her years as a daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, she showed no interest whatsoever in politics. She remained ensconced in the charmed circle of upper class friends, including the now notorious Quattrocchis. Even after her husband became Prime Minister, Sonia remained aloof from the people of this country. She showed no interest in politics unlike, say, her sister-in-law Maneka who, for all her petulance and stridency, carved a political space and an agenda for herself without the aid of the family name.

However, Congressmen insist that the Sonia factor is important not for what the lady is but for what she stands for - the Nehru-Gandhi family legacy. So what exactly is this legacy and what does it mean in terms of actual policies? Does it mean she will project her grandfather-in-law's Nehruvian socialism or her mother-in-law's insincere populism, or her husband's hotch-potch vision for the 21st century? It was after all Rajiv Gandhi's five-year tenure which saw the advent of crony capitalism and the beginnings of economic liberalisation, as well as the first signs of official softness towards the emerging Hindutva forces for instance, the opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid, the shilanyas of the temple on the eve of the 1989 elections and so on) which Narasimha Rao later honed to a fine art. For all the hype of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy and charisma, the truth is that the Congress' disintegration began under the charismatic leadership of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. It was the Congress' failure to democratise the party and the polity, its failure to deliver on the promises to the vast majority of the Indian people, and its failure to adhere to a vibrant secular agenda that led to its steady erosion over the years. The Congress still hopes to become an umbrella party, promising all things to all sections, unmindful of the fact that these sections - Muslims, Dalits and the poor - have moved away from it and will not return unless the party radically revamps itself. As of now, the Congress umbrella is in tatters, the spokes have fallen out in all directions, and will not come together even if Sonia Gandhi were to become its ornate handle.

It is an indication of the bankruptcy of the Congress and its level of demoralisation that a 113-year-old organisation that led the national movement and remains to this day the largest mass political organisation in the country has to depend on the persona of Sonia Gandhi to rejuvenate itself. Insofar as her entry "enthuses and electrifies" the ordinary Congress worker, it will definitely help the party wherever it has a sizable presence. If the Congress worker at the grassroots campaigns with a degree of enthusiasm, it can help the party to some extent. But even an enthusiastic campaign without addressing concrete issues can go only so far and no further. If the Congress persists with an issueless campaign and seeks to project an abstract "stability" under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, it is likely to have a reverse effect.

With the Congress' popularity already at an all-time low, the idea of an alien leader at the helm may alienate not just the hostile middle classes but even the rural masses whom Sonia Gandhi hopes to sway. With the campaign yet to begin, much will depend on what the Congress will project and how deep Sonia will dive into the electoral waters. Only one thing is certain - Sonia Gandhi is the last straw for a desperate Congress party. Whether she will prove the straw that saves a drowning party, or the last straw that breaks the party's back remains to be seen.

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