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The public life of Sonia Gandhi

The public life of Sonia Gandhi

M J Akbar
The Asian Age
March 19, 2000
Title: The public life of Sonia Gandhi
Author: M J Akbar
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: March 19, 2000

An old friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family, a calm gentleman free of ambition, untainted by prejudice and provoked largely by sympathy drew a one-line portrait of Sonia Gandhi. "She is not a natural friend-maker."

The unspoken - with him, speech is a controlled art form - implication was that while this may be a virtue for a recluse, it is less than wholesome in a person who seeks to prosper through a career in public life.

I had a question. Mrs Indira Gandhi did not seem to those of us who watched her from a distance to be a natural friend-maker either. How did he explain her success in politics? She had an instinctive feel for the right option, he responded.

She had a tremendous array of information rivulets, he added; she always kept more than one stream available, and believed that truth had more than one dimension. But friend-maker? I insisted. As an admirer of Indira Gandhi, he could not quite get himself to admit a weakness.

Instead he pounced on a strength: she knew how to build instant chemistry with anyone she met. In a few minutes a visitor would be jelly. Sonia Gandhi tends to build instant ice with her visitors. The latest reports, from the states that went to Assembly polls, suggest that even public meetings have become frosty.

There are understandable, if not entirely acceptable, reasons. When Sonia Gandhi entered politics, her great strength was the fact that she was apolitical. Her great weakness now is that she is still apolitical. The party which welcomed the "cleanliness" of a clean slate, is in deep depression because the slate still remains clean. They now call it vacant.

By this time - and president Sonia Gandhi is now a few serious elections old - Congressmen expected her to have learnt, at the minimum, the alphabet of Indian politics. No one thought she would pick up much grammar; but no one expected continued ignorance of the alphabet either.

This characteristic has long been on display to all those who have the privilege of a private royal audience with her at 10 Janpath. The weakness has become public with Mrs Sonia Gandhi's presence in Parliament.

Her deputy in the Lok Sabha, Madhavrao Scindia, can compensate for her silence up to a point; but he cannot usurp her role without seeming rude or, worse, implicitly stressing her incompetence. That is a dangerous thing for deputies to do to their leaders.

Mr Scindia would be well-advised to show a little more ineptitude if he wants to retain his job. For the moment, the result is a charade which Doordarshan broadcasts every working day of Parliament to the country.

A political party cannot be inspired by a speech-written leader; and its voters cannot be enthused by a leader whose eye-contact is with the text rather than them. At least some of the tension that Sonia Gandhi exudes when she meets the political class comes from the simple reality that she has nothing to contribute to the dialogue.

This helplessness becomes dangerous when mixed with ambition. Once, in those distant days of self-imposed exile, Sonia Gandhi was merely powerful. Today, power has been fuelled with ambition. She wants to be Prime Minister of India, and will not let anything come in the way, least of all the Congress Party.

The manner in which she has brushed aside any suggestion of accountability after the pathetic performance of the Congress in the last Assembly elections is an indication of her ambition. The rules that she applied to her predecessors in the Congress, P.V.

Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, do not apply to her. She is beyond rebuke, above suspicion; she is both Caesar and Caesar's wife.

It is a fact of political life that the weaker you are the more possessive you become about power. You do not have the confidence to make space for another point of view. Mrs Indira Gandhi, who never veered away from democracy either before or after, became a dictator only at her weakest hour.

This in turn fed delusions among her chosen sycophants, with her loyal party president Dev Kanta Barooah confusing India with Indira. Sonia Gandhi has, with far less justification than her mother-in-law (there is no comparison), begun to confuse herself with the Congress. Sonia is Congress and Congress is Sonia.

The nominations to the Rajya Sabha have been remarkable for their self-centred motivation. She did not treat the Congress as a political party, as a collection of individuals and interests through whom she had to string a common denominator; she treated the Congress as an extension of her personal needs and demands.

Anyone who did or could have challenged her was denied a ticket, and replaced by a nonentity whose only qualification was complete subservience to Sonia Gandhi. Sitaram Kesri was only the most glaring instance.

While it is true that Mr Kesri never rocked the Rajya Sabha with his intellectual discourse, the man who replaced him, Phaguni Ram, is unlikely to create history. Loyalty to Sonia Gandhi was far more important in the selection procedure than loyalty to Congress, whether you were Phaguni Ram or R.P. Goenka.

No one is certain what good R.P. Goenka has done to the Congress, but there is a lot of evidence for how much good R.P. Goenka has done to Sonia Gandhi. Deception was used where necessary to de-fang actual or potential dissidents.

Vijay Bhaskar Reddy was told that he would get a Rajya Sabha seat if he, as head of the disciplinary committee, expelled Matang Singh from the Congress. Vijay Bhaskar obeyed, and that was the last he heard from 10 Janpath. His promised seat went to yet another delighted unknown, a film producer who had thrown his son out of his home after the son married a Dalit. The Rajya Sabha ticket has become a lottery ticket.

Paradoxically, Sonia Gandhi is only as strong as Congressmen are weak. She can be confident about their impotence. As they themselves cheerfully admit, cowardice is one of the elements that unites the party. There is something about this family that makes them even more united than they are under other leaders.

There is possibly a case to be argued in favour of cowardice; perhaps there is nothing else which will work with as fractious a lot as Congressmen. But even cowardice needs a justification. Congressmen were happy to advertise their cowardice under the dominating leadership of Indira Gandhi, but there was a quid pro quo.

Congressmen gave Indira Gandhi their loyalty; she in turn gave them victory in elections. Even when she lost an election, which she did but once, she gave them hope. The equation between Indira Gandhi and her Congress worked because it was a two-way street.

Sonia Gandhi's tenure is unusual because she is demanding total obedience after she has sucked out all hope. No one believes that she can deliver any election victory. They are quite certain that even where the Congress does win it is because of circumstances rather than her.

Between the disastrous general election and the pathetic Assembly elections, the Congress has actually dropped its share of the vote. The brief bump in Uttar Pradesh, which promised some redemption last year, has disappeared, and it is certain now that if the BJP is going to be at all defeated in Uttar Pradesh next year it will be by Mulayam Singh Yadav rather than the Congress.

The party contemplates the prospect of five years in Opposition with Sonia Gandhi as its leader with, once again private, despair. There is no doubt about it; as long as she is leader, it will be five years in Opposition no matter how abysmal the performance of the government.

Sonia Gandhi is a problem on two counts: she is incapable of mounting a serious political challenge to the BJP; and as long as her ambitions take precedence over party interests there cannot be any plausible unity among non-BJP parties.

It is that dreaded 272 Syndrome again. Her politics does not revolve around defeating the BJP; it evolves around making her Prime Minister. There is a significant difference. Those close to her will not tell her, and those far away have no occasion to, that even if the government's credibility begins to sink, as it has, this does not mean that her credibility is on the rise.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi possibly feels that she has time on her side. She is comparatively young; five years is not going to hurt her as much as it will hurt most of the members of the working committee.

Neither her age nor the age of her colleagues is the issue. The issue is what will the state of the Congress be in five years. The party has disappeared from most of India. It would be a tragedy if the only Congress to survive after five years were the Overseas Congress.

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