Twenty-five years ago this day – March 14, 1998 – some of the most congenital intriguers and conspirators the Congress had nurtured over the years got together to defrock a duly elected party president, Sitaram Kesari, and install, in his place, Sonia Gandhi as the Congress boss. All the honourable men and women in the Congress leadership at the time – Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh, A.K. Anthony, Manmohan Singh, Jitendra Prasad, Sharad Pawar, Shivraj Patil, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, Rajesh Pilot, Madhavrao Scindia, among others – were party to elevating someone who had once been been gratuitously dismissed as “a simple housewife”, as head of the oldest political organisation in India.
Yet, as it happened, Sonia Gandhi turned out to be the longest serving party chief and historians and political commentators give her credit for leading her party to power in 2004 after its longest stint out of government at the Centre. As the designated mascot of a powerful political legacy, Sonia had the advantage of name-recognition, a certain familiarity with the levers of power, an unexplored mystique and a shrewd mind. Above all, however, her greatest asset was a persona that exuded decency and civility.
It is possible to suggest, in retrospect, that the combination of calculations and personalities that led to her being given the party crown was a response to the felt need to restore a new cohesion and confidence in the Congress – till then acknowledged and respected as the natural party of governance. The post-Rajiv Gandhi Congress had been in a veritable turmoil. Cascading events – the 1991 economic reforms, the Babri Masjid demolition and downstream disruption caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union – underlined the need for some kind of leadership consensus in the party; and, by extension, in the Indian polity. Sonia seemed to be just the person to provide a calm and soothing presence in a party full of agitating egos and conflicting ambitions.
The same requirement of stability and cohesion in the polity had, in 1998, made the electorate turn to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a familiar, unthreatening leader, with a well-earned reputation for working across the political divide. The Centre does not permit any vacuum or uncertainty. Newly-empowered, Corporate India put all its eggs in the Vajpayee basket. The combined political skills of L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan cobbled together a working majority behind the Vajpayee regime. But even before it could settle down to attend to the polity’s business of governance, the Vajpayee innings got aborted by another set of Tamil Nadu-based intriguers.
The over-reaching and over-ambitious players could come together to vote the Vajpayee government out but would not agree on backing Sonia’s claims to form an alternative coalition in New Delhi. Indian politicos were not the only ones making miscalculations; the generals in Islamabad smelled an opportunity in chaos across the border and embarked ill-advisedly on the Kargil adventure. When the country found itself voting once again in a general election after the Kargil War, it made a clear choice – the “tried and tested” Vajpayee over Sonia Gandhi.
On her part, Sonia also learnt a lesson: to not let darbaris stoke her ambitions. The country was looking for a calming presence that only a Vajpayee could provide. It is also possible to believe that she understood very clearly that as an Italian by birth, she probably would not be acceptable to the traditional Indian society. Instead, she devoted herself to producing a certain kind of order and stability in the Congress. She understood, presciently, that all that the Congress had to do was to give evidence of political maturity, seriousness and savvy, and wait for the Vajpayee regime to make mistakes.
And the Vajpayee regime did make mistakes. As prime minister, Vajpayee found Advani snapping at his heels; he would not give the time of the day to those demanding supremos in Nagpur; and, when “9/11” transmitted its own ugly reverberations in this part of the world, Team Vajpayee fumbled and stumbled. Vajpayee’s failure to send the then Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, packing after the horrific anti-Muslim violence sealed the NDA government’s fate.
2004 was not as much a vote for the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress as it was a rejection of the BJP politics of polarisation. Again, the Centre would not countenance a vacuum. Sonia brilliantly repurposed Indian politics: the Left was induced to become a partner, and she herself handed over the crown to Manmohan Singh. She became the pivot around whom systematic stability and coherence got produced, as new ideas and new impulses felt accommodated.
The 2009 Lok Sabha poll saw Sonia at her best, when she unambiguously declared that Manmohan Singh was the Congress party’s prime ministerial face. For the first time, the Nehru-Gandhi family was seen pitching for someone else to become the prime minister. A mature electorate voted for the unsentimental Manmohan Singh over the much-hyped L.K. Advani.
That very success produced its own discontent. The Gandhi family and its professional sycophants were unwilling to give any credit to Manmohan Singh. Senior cabinet ministers like Pranab Mukherjee and Anthony could sense the mood at “10 Janpath” and blithely went about slowing down the prime minister. Sonia herself did nothing to discourage the intriguers, who were happy to prop up Rahul Gandhi as yet another power centre. Sonia allowed tale-carriers to dilute her greatest strength: as the pivot of stability and coherence and purposefulness in the party and by extension in the UPA government.
The Family, instead, became a source of disruption internally and a cause for public resentment at large. Sonia, who now appeared determined to promote her son, lost her moral authority vis-à-vis the UPA’s allies, as well as the voters. By the time 2014 came, her charisma had faded. Voters saw her only as a mother bent upon installing an unwilling and undeserving son in the prime ministerial chair.
All this ambition for her son would have come to pass only if Sonia had applied herself to rebuilding the party organisation. Not once during her two-decade long presidency did she attend to the obvious task of repairing a broken-down organisation. She could argue that party-building was not her forte; she was not chosen because of her managerial skills but because of her name and her presumed charisma. Predictably, the party got reduced to an extended household, designed to attend to her family’s needs and ambitions. She became the very antithesis of institutionalisation.
History will not give Sonia high marks for this failure. Because of this personalisation of a very old organisation, her legacy is a Congress that lacks the resilience and the ideas and the leadership to ward off the creeping authoritarianism besetting India. Not a very happy denouement. Not a very proud accomplishment.
Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.