Back to the dynasty

Print edition : February 21, 1998

There is an underlying stratagem in Sonia Gandhi's sequence of locutions; it reflects the Congress(I)'s effort to reclaim a political space for itself after having failed to consolidate a Hindu vote bank.

PRIOR to her entry into the electoral campaign on behalf of the Congress(I), Sonia Gandhi played host to a gathering of the faithful at her residence in New Delhi. She reportedly heard out the fawning entreaties of her callers with cheery good humour, said little of substance, and only urged visitors who were keen to invoke her authority for the redressal of specific grievances, to maintain the unity of the Congress(I) at all costs.

At a fleeting encounter with the media on the airport tarmac after the first of her campaign visits, Sonia Gandhi was asked whether she would be willing to assume the leadership of the party whose fortunes she seemed to have taken into her hands. She would only say that she had 'no problems' with the incumbent president of the Congress(I).

Despite her lately acquired salience in public affairs, encounters with Sonia Gandhi have remained tightly controlled affairs. At an Iftar party in Delhi, a journalist presumptuously penetrated the layers of protective security around her and put to her the question whether she was scared of an interaction with the press. The response was a terse and indignant denial, minus any effort at elaboration.

Sonia Gandhi at her Calcutta rally on February 5.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

This freedom from any form of public interrogation is a unique aspect of Sonia's campaign style - a privilege that she has utilised to good effect in propelling her private grievances to the foreground of political discussion. The alleged campaign of vilification her family suffered on account of the Bofors scandal investigations was the first of the plaints that she placed before the electorate for public arbitration. The misplaced bravado of her challenge - that all known facts of the scandal be made public - met with a spirited political response. The first gamble had backfired and Bofors was banished from the agenda of her subsequent public appearances.

Sonia Gandhi's early campaign appearances had been rather ambivalent in terms of their underlying purpose and motivations. But the lineaments of her basic strategy, of allowing carefully calibrated glimpses into her zealously guarded privacy, were not slow in emerging.

THIS new campaign style would perhaps count as an interesting and rather innocuous political curiosity were it not accompanied by a rather cynical effort at effacing the record of remembered history. What would appear to be demonstrable falsehoods from all the evidence available in the public domain are asserted as self-evident truths by Congress(I)'s main campaigner. And the only supportive evidence she has to offer is drawn from a private domain that has remained impenetrable for all of these years. For converting the private confidences of a public individual into the currency of electoral mobilisation, Sonia and her campaign managers within the Congress(I) merit a place of honour in the ranks of political innovators.

For the Congress(I), Sonia's new policy of transparency brings exculpation from responsibility for the more traumatic events of the last 15 years. The blame, rather, is banished into an ethereal realm, where maleficent forces operate devoid of human agency. Operation Bluestar, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the demolition of the Babri Masjid - three events that deeply scarred the Indian political psyche - become, contrary to the popular perception, no part of the Congress' responsibility.

Whatever Rajiv Gandhi may have privately felt about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, his sole public reference to it, though oblique, has entered the annals of infamy for its sheer cynicism: 'When a giant tree falls, the mother earth below shakes.' And in politics, private sentiments that have no bearing on public affairs might as well not exist. If not a fiction, then the sentiment of remorse that Rajiv Gandhi allegedly felt at the 1984 riots is inconsequential. It had no bearing on his conduct as a public figure - he exercised neither his moral authority nor his political powers to redress the deep injuries of 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi, to the contrary, was to prove quite capable of both explicit and subliminal references to the alleged abetment of terrorism by those in the Opposition at the time. Where an approach of dialogue, consensus and conciliation was favoured by many in the Opposition, he proved unmindful of the limits of political civility in his exchanges with them. For all who were inclined to see the insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir as a consequence of the Congress(I)'s dangerous dalliances with religious extremism and its indifference towards well-established constitutional proprieties, the approach smacked of deep-seated political arrogance.

Sonia Gandhi's revisionism on Ayodhya is also deeply problematic. The picture she has conjured up, of a Rajiv Gandhi who was prepared to stand in the way of the marauding hordes rather than allow any damage to the Babri Masjid, fails every basic test of credibility. All through the turbulent build-up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Rajiv Gandhi waffled and equivocated. During the shilanyas' crisis of 1989, the only Congressman who vowed to stand in the way of any effort to damage the mosque was Kamlapati Tripathi, an isolated and often derided figure in the Rajiv dispensation. V.P. Singh, who also sought to intervene personally at the venue of the destructive ritual, was arrested from the neighbouring town of Faizabad under the prohibitory orders then in force.

Rajiv Gandhi's final word on that sequence of events - that the credit for the peaceful culmination of the shilanyas belonged to his party and its government - only carries a strong suggestion of cynicism, since it came after hundreds had been killed in communal riots that swept across the country.

ALTHOUGH based very weakly on fact, there is an underlying political stratagem in Sonia Gandhi's recent sequence of locutions. This lies in the Congress(I)'s effort to reclaim a political space for itself, after having gambled and lost in its effort to consolidate a Hindu vote bank. The story of the Congress(I)'s decline from the Rajiv days is, in fact, a story of desertion by its traditional constituencies. Sections that swore allegiance to the Congress for its commitment to a strong and centralised state that would keep divergent regional tendencies in check, opted for the more explicitly authoritarian aura of the Bharatiya Janata Party. And the classes which congregated under the Congress banner in response to its invocation of the themes of economic populism, found a better vehicle in various kinds of regional and caste-oriented political formations.

Essentially, this was the price the Congress paid for enshrining its dynastic loyalties while renouncing more basic political commitments. The current restoration of dynastic values yokes the Congress(I) ever more irretrievably to the Rajiv legacy. And since this legacy yields little of political value when interpreted in a fair and accurate manner, it has to be recast to suit the conveniences of the moment. The effort, clearly, is to regain the allegiance of the religious minorities, the poor and the Dalits, who were progressively alienated by the Congress(I)'s adoption of an idiom of Hindu majoritarian mobilisation under Rajiv.

Dynastic claims of legitimacy do not quite sit well with institutional well-being in a democracy. Bofors and other scandals from Rajiv Gandhi's time are notable not so much for the quanta of money involved, but for the damage they inflicted upon the health of the nation's political institutions. Investigators at the country's top police agencies were consistently obliged to ignore their professional mandate and acquiesce in the cover-up operation, the parliamentary right to know and to inform was overpowered by the will of the dynasty, and commissions of enquiry were regularly required to dress up political biases as judicial findings. Sonia Gandhi's insistence that an agenda of action be formulated on the findings of the Jain Commission of Inquiry - an exercise deemed little short of farcical by most independent scrutinies - fits in with this pattern of dynastic subversion of institutional well-being.

Perhaps to cut out all risks, Sonia Gandhi has not embarked alone on her retrieval job for the Congress(I). She has often called in members of her immediate family to join her on the campaign trail. For reasons partly connected with its prolonged absence from the political arena, there is a certain degree of public curiosity focussed around the family.

Though it is far from clear that audience interest in the Sonia Gandhi roadshow will necessarily be translated into vote commitments, most assessments seem to point to reasonable electoral gains for the Congress(I). Beyond that lies one great imponderable: whether the new star of the party really conceives of any kind of a durable role for herself in political affairs. Any objective reading would seem to point to the essential irrelevance of the Sonia factor in a longer-term framework. The interests of the poor, the underprivileged and the marginal - whose allegiance she seeks - are for her an alien ethos. And her ability to manage the rampant collision of factional animosities and individual egos within the Congress(I) is yet unproven.

The layers of protective security that have been thrown around her, her marked preference for a declamatory style of campaigning rather than an interactive one, and the elaborate effort to shield her from the threat of media questioning - all point to an acute awareness of the ephemeral and vulnerable character of the Sonia effect. But in the flurry of apologies and recantations that she has engaged in, basic questions of her underlying values and commitments remain unaddressed. Claims that she is the natural legatee to the values of the freedom struggle have been advanced, but dismissed out of hand. Dynastic politics has often been known to impoverish the strain of political commitment. After a few generations of lineal descent, a dynasty's sole surviving commitment is often enough, only to itself.

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