Staring from the scratch
In March 2013, the Congress celebrated 15th year of Sonia Gandhi’s presidency of the party. Having led the party through the hurly-burly of coalition politics for a decade-and-half, she decided to take a backseat in the just concluded polls letting her son Rahul Gandhi to lead from the front. The Congress has been miserably mauled in the polls with Rahul Gandhi’s leadership claims suffering unspeakable damage.
Despite coming in for umpteen criticisms for failing to lead his party to victory, my sympathies are with Rahul Gandhi. The Congress vice-president was in most unenviable situation asked to lead a campaign to defend a government which had a helmsman in a free market economist who did not believe in Congress president’s socialistic programmes to make deep roots into rural India.
As Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi worked overtime to keep up the façade of the party and the government walking together despite the difference of opinion between the two, governance got mangled. This led to a situation of a government in paralysis and country in disarray. Unfortunately Sonia sent her son to the battleground guarded by knights in jaded armour, many of whom decided not to take up the arm and the remaining fell like ninepins. Congress president’s quality of accommodation became her biggest undoing in 2014, the brunt of which was faced by her chosen heir.
When the Congress leaders had turfed Sitaram Kesri out from Congress president’s office and hoisted Sonia as party president in 1998, their main concern was to return to power as soon as possible. But for Gandhi it was the question of not just reclaiming leadership but also complete trust of the cadres to the Nehru-Gandhi family, which had shown signs of erosion over the years.
The opportunity came her way when Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was challenged in the summer of 1998 in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) with Sharad Pawar, leader of the opposition in the outgoing house, Purno Sangama, speaker of Lok Sabha between 1996-98 and Tariq Anwar, political secretary to Sonia’s predecessor Sitaram Kesri, raising the banner of revolt on the question of her foreign origin. Sonia Gandhi went into an immediate sulk, resigning as Congress president.
The challenge posed by Pawar-Sangama-Anwar on her foreign origin gave her that chance to test the trust she enjoyed in her party, beyond the confines of Congress Working Committee. The BJP and its allies, which had first raised the foreign origin issue, were more than happy with the revolt. Then BJP president Kushabhau Thakre had stated, ‘We are pleased to see there are some in the Congress who have feelings of nationalism.’
The revolt in the Congress happened at the time when war broke out between India and Pakistan in Kargil sector and the polls got shifted to after the monsoon season. Despite heading a caretaker government, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his defence minister George Fernandes emerged as national heroes leading India to a resounding victory. They were justly rewarded in the general elections which followed, where the Congress party gave its worst ever performance till then getting just 114 Lok Sabha seats. Despite the rout Sonia Gandhi retained her position having consolidated her leadership. Today Congress finds itself in worse situation having been reduced to less than 50 seats in Lok Sabha. Thus the challenge for Sonia Gandhi to re-establish leadership is ever greater than before. To understand the challenge it’s important to recall how she managed to overcome the thrashing at the hustling and the revolt by the triumvirate of Pawar, Sangama and Anwar.
While the revolt was immediately quelled in the Congress Working Committee, which pledged her support, Sonia refused to come out of sulk. She waited for the workers to exhort her. Next the powerful club of Congress chief ministers led by Sheila Dikshit, Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot among others forwarded their resignations in her support. She refused to yield as she waited for the Congress cadres to arrive and lay siege of the party headquarters. They did not let her down and did come in large numbers.
Satisfied that a point has been made to the Congress leadership, Sonia yielded and agreed to remain the party president. Having once again been routed and with the threat of a less amenable than Atal Bihari Vajpayee adversary in Narendra Modi, will Sonia Gandhi be able to rebuild the confidence of her cadres in her leadership as she did in 1999. In matters of politics Sonia has been different from her husband and mother-in-law. While like Indira and Rajiv she connects well with the cadres, she also trusts her party leaders, a quality for which her dynasty is not really known for. Her politics reaped rich dividends for the party till the debacle of 2014 happened.
Unfortunately, her son has made public show of distrust for her mother’s courtiers, a quality he has inherited from his father and grand-mother. However, Rahul Gandhi has not shown the same ability as Rajiv and Indira to endear himself to the masses. This is probably attributable to the fact that he depends too much on the tutelage he receives from, for lack of a better word, advisers.
Unlike Indira and Rajiv, Sonia did not choose to anoint herself as the leader riding the crest of popular political sentiments. She chose to remain in political hibernation for seven long years following her husband’s assassination in 1991.
Whatever criticism her political opponents may have of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, they would also concede that she took charge of the party when its fortunes were at ebb. The party had lost power in 1996 and thereafter decline had been both steady and rapid. Sonia entered the fray only to revive the tottering monolith, which she did so very effectively.
Almost 16 years later, would she be able to repeat the act for her son, who finds himself in a more difficult and challenging situation. She has done the right thing by taking up the cudgels as the leader of the parliamentary party. She has to take on the Modi juggernaut by the horns to keep her party and family relevant.
The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post