Free Press Journal

Course correction: Sonia owes it to Rajiv

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All Said and done,  Rahul did not drop from the heavens into our waiting arms in Amethi. He has no divine right to rule, not is he a permanent star in our political constellation. He has been around long enough to find his feet and voice, so to speak. He descended on us in 2004 and since then detractors say he has rendered his party not only politically redundant but also eminently unelectable in what might be its twilight years. If this is indeed the case, it is a major procurement for any man in his late 40s.

Let me confess at the outset that I am not enamoured of the Gandhis, nor do I hold any brief for the Indian National Congress party.  I do not find the family’s style of intrusive personalised politics – where the party is a mere imprint of the leader’s persona – endearing. Nor do I in principle approve of leaders who painstakingly construct a larger than life image and perpetually hang it around the neck of the party like a giant billboard.

But even though I have grave reservations over these afflictions – especially the lack of inner democracy – I do not have any pathological hatred for the Gandhis either, especially Sonia whom I rather admire for her grit. Now that I have placed myself in the pillory, let me go a step further and commit political blasphemy as well, by asserting that all said and done this “foreign intruder” has held the party together since 1998, acting as some kind of a political adhesive. But more of that later.


Any other woman in Sonia’s place would have fled to Italy after her husband was assassinated in 1991, fearing for the future of her children. So, momentarily, let us see it from the vantage point of a woman who has lost her husband, has to raise two children, and handle the machinations in a party that is a predominantly male preserve and is prone to more intrigue than a medieval palace. To add to her discomfiture, all these years Sonia had led a sheltered life, with her husband shielding her from public glare. Also, despite the proximity to the Gandhi household, she neither understood the local idiom nor was part of the cultural milieu.

Try to imagine now a young widow’s distress, her angst, her helplessness and the salivating party men, dripping with sycophancy, swarming all over. Sure, the self-serving old guard in the party gave her a political template within which she had to discharge a straightjacket role; but the party’s power elite also had scant personal affinity with Sonia post-Rajiv – their only dread was the loss of privileges and perks. Sonia took care of the sensitivities of the old guard, ingratiated herself with the man on the street and, most important, kept a straight face before the media. That largely took care of the public perception.

Imagine if LK Advani was transported to Italy, asked to pick up the local language, wear chinos and linen suits and manage Italy’s largest party in his leisure time. Any other woman in Sonia’s place – a daughter of the soil so to speak – would have married her son off by now, so that she was assured of a political inheritor. And, in all probability, there would be a brood playing in her backyard by now.

That should nullify the theory that Sonia has long term dynastic designs. Rahul may be the most eligible bachelor at hand but one can’t hear the marriage bells tolling either here or in Myanmar in the near future. That might slam the doors on the Gandhi dynasty for all times to come. Even those who accuse Sonia of being an extra-constitutional authority during the UPA regimes don’t realise that the dual power centre was the most suitable arrangement for the Congress at that time. Inherent in this was also an invisible system of checks and balances. Again, it is to her credit that in UPA-II she persisted with her nominee Manmohan Singh and did not have him unceremoniously removed even in the face of bad press and low approval ratings.

Similar questions can also arise about the ideological relationship between the BJP and the RSS: for instance, how can a legitimate BJP government allow an extraneous influence like the RSS – which has neither the popular mandate nor the sanction of the Constitution – the latitude to leave its imprint on public policy and national agenda? For that matter, how can elected representatives of any party, who are the repositories of our trust, allow, without our knowledge or consent, any outsourcing of matters of public policy?

Sonia realised rather early the importance of symbolism over substance: the grace with which she carries the saree and the pallu were all part of this “traditional bahu” demeanour she had created for herself. Also, all her life there has been no hint of personal scandal and personal impropriety, though it remains to be seen what course the infractions in the National Herald case will take.

This is not to suggest that all is hunky dory within the party. The rot had perhaps set in decades earlier, when anonymous party men were made chief ministers. Depriving the states of strong leaders has been at the root of the decline of the Congress. Indira’s successors had merrily stuck to this template, in the process alienating the party activist and killing whatever little talent that existed in the party.

One dreads the political vacuum that may arise post Sonia, given the political naivety of Rahul and the absence of a second-rung leadership; all this does not augur well for our bipolar polity either. It is only when you consider the continuity that Sonia has imparted to the party that one realises the import of having had her around all these years.

In parties like the Congress, continuity is a far more overwhelming a factor than institutional change. But maybe now it is time for course correction, before it is too late. Sonia owes it to Rajiv, if nobody else. All said and done, Rahul did not drop from the heavens into our waiting arms in Amethi. He has no divine right to rule, nor is he a permanent star in our political constellation.He has been around long enough to find his feet and voice, so to speak. He descended on us in 2004 and since then detractors say he has rendered his party not only politically redundant but also eminently unelectable in what might be its twilight years. If this is indeed the case, it is a major procurement for any man in his late 40s.

There is no denying that Rahul is a responsive, sensitive and compassionate person but his minimalist approach to the affairs of the state is, at times, a major embarrassment.

Most important, he cannot disengage himself from the political process, as he tends to do from time to time, opting to be a bystander when the nation is at the crossroads. if he does so, he is abdicating his responsibility as a Congress party Vice President and heir apparent.

Sure, his heart is in the right place; he allow us to have a good laugh which is so important to keep our sanity intact in these times of stress. But Rahul’s job is not just to provide comic relief to the nation. So, wake up Sid! But even the worst critics of the Congress will be constrained to admit that there is magic in that name Gandhi; as long as it remains the core and the kernel of the Congress, the ‘dynast’ will continue to pose a formidable challenge to the BJP.

The author is editor of The Free Press Journal