The Sonia Years

Mystery wrapped in enigma

By Poonam I Kaushish

The old order gave way to the new in the 132 years Grand Dame of Indian politics with the ascendency of Rahul Gandhi as Congress President. Having been the driving force behind the Congress for more than 19 years, his mother Sonia leaves behind a legacy full of ups and downs.
From taking baby steps of being an ideal daughter-in-law to taking giant strides on the political arena, indeed Sonia Gandhi has come a long way. Who would have thought that the dimpled Italian bahu of India’s-then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 60’s who tentatively entered politics in 1998 would metamorphise into the numero uno of the Congress and become its longest serving President. From Indira is India and India is Indira to Sonia is Congress and Congress is Sonia. Clearly, the ‘outsider’ had become an ‘insider’!
As she hangs up her boots it must be indeed sweet victory for Sonia who had hated politics, derisively been dismissed as the Italian mama mia who did not understand it to becoming the binding force and most powerful leader on the Congress firmament with strong views, steely determination and the will of a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Unchallenged, assertive and confident she stumps Congressmen, is a formidable rival and endears herself to the masses.
For starters Sonia was never swept into politics by a wave. She was a reluctant politician who came in as “duty to her family to save the Party.” Her Helen of Troy seizure of the Party in 1998 saw the beginning of Sonia’s new political love affair. True, she is no iron lady like her famous mother-in-law Indira but a status quoist who stabilized the Congress and unified dispirited cadres.
Being a quick learner and realistic in her self-assessment about her role as the Gandhi face in the Congress leadership, Sonia was aware that the lore of her surname didn’t foreclose in-house challenges. Slowly but surely she built a team loyal to her alone, patiently handled difficult situations, heard everyone but made up her own mind.
Her biggest achievement is her acceptability as the Congress supremo. In fact, many dub Sonia as a person who understands smart real politik and is a consummate politician. A leader who willy nilly gets her “loyalists” to build a consensus of what she wants done among Party men which is perceived as originating from the larger Congress family.
Moreover, she has infinite patience and gives stooges a long rope to hang themselves with, only stepping in to douse dissidence when the occasion arises. Key ‘Family’ retainers Arjun Singh, Fotedar and Natwar Singh’s brutal axing many years ago underscores that Sonia is no pushover who can be a butcher when the occasion demands. Bluntly, don’t bet too much on loyalty.
The 70-year old quickly became the glue Congress needed after the rift in the Party during the Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesri years. She also gave Party leaders their space and role even after acquiring authority and unseated few Chief Ministers and PCC Chiefs.
Till date none knows whether it was duty or love that bound this fifth Nehru-Gandhi member to the Party and politics. Her famous tyaag of the Prime Ministership in 2004 showed her as a leader who knew her own limitations, realized her anointment would divide India and astutely appointed trusted lieutenant Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. In one fell stroke Sonia crossed the political Rubicon from an Italian to an Indian and gained acceptability across the political spectrum.
Simultaneously, by learning the art of putting animosity aside and making new friends, she had recalcitrant regional satraps eating out of her hands. Be it DMK’s Karunanidhi, Trinamool’s Mamta, RJD’s Lalu and Samajwadi’s Mulayam.
Pertinently, by the time elections rolled in 2004, Sonia had extricated her Party from political isolation and cobbled together a formidable rainbow coalition to defeat Vajpayee with a surprise victory. Over the next ten years she reigned as India’s Empress, never mind her natural reserve. Nicknamed, the ‘power behind the throne’ she headed the NAC which gave her power without answerability.
Besides, Sonia’s ideology differs significantly from her predecessors in several important respects. The obvious contrast is with Congress’s last Prime Minister Narasimha Rao 1991-96 who dismantled the Party’s minority base notwithstanding Sonia’s deep hatred of communalism. When she criticizes the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, it’s not just election rhetoric but means every word of it.
Unlike the other Nehru-Gandhis, Sonia was not brought up in a Prime Minister’s house. Consequently, perhaps she has less of a sense of entitlement, is deeply suspicious of flattery and avoided developing any kind of court. Within the Congress there are no favourites or confidants. Her single most important adviser, political secretary Ahmed Patel has an institutional role.
However, on another level, Congressmen have not much to crow about. Sonia’s ‘historic’ 19 years highlights the dichotomy within the Party. On two scores: One, it is suffering from a severe ‘leaders’ crisis. Two, there is no democracy within, despite second-rung leaders taking pot shots against each other explained as the Congress’ democratic ways. Sic. Her stint also saw the Party face its worst electoral drubbings: 114 seats in 1999 to 44 seats in 2014.
Undoubtedly, Sonia brooks no nonsense and could bulldoze her way through fawning courtiers and adoring crowds. True, she might not have been able to achieve many of her goals and also failed to ward off the BJP challenge since 2014 but she has ensured at least one — a dynastic change of guard —— anointing son, Rahul.
Sadly, her bold initiatives on the national front by bringing in the Right to Information, Right to Education and MREGA might not have percolated to the Party organization which is caught in the time wrap of the Khandaan’s mystic and magic wherein sycophancy continues to thrive.
Undeniably, many accuse Sonia of single-handedly destroying India’s economy thanks to humungous corruption whereby UPA’s 10 years rule became synonymous with sleaze, a Congress blackhole into which public money disappeared. Worse, she is perceived of being party to it for refusing to stem the rot and turning a blind eye to son-in-law Robert Vadra’s misdemeanors.
Therein, lies the Congress’ tragedy. It is so besotted by the Dynasty’s mystique that it continues to defend the indefensible. Gripped in the all-powering tentacles of deep-rooted sycophancy it makes Congressmen moribund in outlook with no fresh flow of ideas as all look at appeasing the Mistress and the Prince. See how Congressmen hail Rahul as if he has a magic wand which will make the Party regain its glory.
Notably, 10 Janpath’s influence on internal Congress politics has been all pervasive. Times out of number Sonia has blatantly traded on family legacy making the Party synonymous with the family, succinctly unbridled power without responsibility and accountability. Refusing to nurture State leaders who could revive the Party Sonia ensured there was none to challenge Rahul.
Clearly, she will be best remembered for unifying the Congress’ something Rahul will have to emulate, to prepare the Party for a fight-back against Modi-Shah combine. As she calls it a day, Sonia asserted, “My role is now to retire,” without giving any details or time frame. Thereby, continuing to retain her trade mark: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. —— INFA