Sonia succeeded once, now she fails as Congress suffers

By Rasheed Kidwai | 10 Dec 2016 07:28 AM
Public memory is short. To understand the Congress of 2016, one needs to revisit the second half of 1997 when Congress leaders like Aslam Sher Khan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, PR Kumaramangalam, Suresh Kalmadi and Buta Singh deserted the grand old party.

In despair, a number of middle rung leaders such as Digvijaya Singh, Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot, Vayalar Ravi and Kamal Nath had approached 'apolitical' Sonia Gandhi with a plea: “You can't allow the collapse of the Congress in front of your eyes.”  The tardy progress of the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the declining fortunes of the Congress and the attack on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's legacy had weighed in heavily on Sonia’s decision to join active politics. Sonia viewed the Congress as an extension of her love for Rajiv and the country she had chosen to live in.

Sonia chose December 28, 1997, the 112th anniversary of the Indian National Congress, to campaign for the party in the general election that had by then been announced. Incumbent AICC  president Sitaram Kesri had not expect her to participate in the campaigning.

When a brief note from 10, Janpath was passed on to Kesri to make a formal announcement that "Sonia Gandhi is ready for the Congress campaign,” he is said to have mumbled to himself, “Sab kuchh khatam. Woh aa rahi hai.”  He chose not to brief the media that day, giving spokesman VN Gadgil the task of making the all important announcement.

Sonia’s formal entry in politics was quick to arrest the mass exodus, unite a faction-ridden Congress and give party workers hope and a sense of purpose. For the next six years, Sonia focussed on rebuilding the party organisation and strengthening the leadership in the States. As Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled States, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Sheila Dixit, Digvijaya Singh, Ashok Gehlot, Capt Amarinder Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad not only got a free hand.

They also got a chance to contribute in periodic conclaves of Chief Ministers of the Congress-ruled States held in Delhi, Mount Abu, Guwahati, Shimla, Nainital and Srinagar. As AICC president, she adopted the Japanese method by holding maximum consultation that was refreshingly different from the rather autocratic methods of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi -- they would frequently change the Congress Chief Ministers.

The May 2004 poll verdict and her subsequent act of renunciation made many Congressmen to change the order of words Gandhi, Sonia. But it did not happen. The Italian born widow had an opportunity to step back and hand over the party to its experienced leaders. A young backbencher in the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi, had an ideal mentor in Manmohan Singh.

Instead, Sonia relied on some short term advice from Jairam Ramesh, Pulok Chatterjee and others who insisted upon the creation of a 'Super Cabinet' role for the party chief. The posts of UPA chairperson and head of a National Advisory Council (NAC) were hurriedly created even as thinking  partymen like Pranab Mukherjee,  Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh and AK Antony kept mum viewing these developments as “checks” on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had stolen a march over them.

Perhaps, personal bias and prejudice coloured their courage of conviction and moral duty to oppose these measures. The UPA suffered immensely, particularly in its second tenure, by that time Natwar was out of Congress, Arjun had been dropped from the Cabinet while Mukherjee had succeeded in moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan leaving Antony with a guilty conscience.

Nearly 19 years later, Sonia’s extraordinary journey from a housewife to an astute politician among politicians is demanding certain substantive actions in the larger interest of the Congress or what she had thought to be extension of her love for Rajiv.

First and foremost, the AICC chief needs to introspect whether her decision to push son Rahul as supreme leader of the party was correct. It is true that the entire Congress hierarchy is responsible for  Rahul’s elevation at Hyderabad (2006) and Jaipur (2013) but as head of the Congress parivar, should not she have counted on her own judgement and listened to her “inner voice.”

More importantly, Sonia needs to ponder if any “course correction” is required at this crucial juncture. If Rahul is unable to enthuse and motivate party cadre, can Priyanka Gandhi be 'paired' with the AICC vice-president and become a symbol of 'hope' the way Sonia had fashioned herself in December 1997?  Can functional duties and work allocation between Rahul and Priyanka be demarcated and distributed so that there are no two power centres or camps within the organisation?

The Congress has a rich history of Nehru-Gandhi family members working as a 'pair'. If Priyanka indeed joins politics, this will not for the first time that two members of the Nehru-Gandhi family would be holding high posts. In 1959, Indira became Congress president much to the surprise of many in the party when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister. Nehru's detractors had viewed the development as the then Prime Minister's bid to push his daughter into the coveted post. But a large section of Congressmen of that era had felt that Indira had earned her post through merit. They had reason to say so. As AICC chief, Indira tackled the Kerala crisis and recommended the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat to end the linguistic troubles there. When her term ended in 1960, the Congress Working Committee tried hard, requesting Indira to stand for a re-run but she declined.
Sanjay Gandhi, between 1974 and 1980 did not opt for a formal post in the Congress (except for a brief stint as AICC general secretary, but was considered at par with Indira in many organisational and administrative matters. In fact, weeks before he died in a fatal air-crash in June 1980, associate Ram Chandra Rath was viewing Sanjay as party president. Rath used to say, “Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru became AICC leaders at a very young age. So if the party elects him president, it's perfectly democratic. There is nothing wrong with that."

Sanjay’s brother Rajiv became AICC general secretary in 1983 when Indira was Prime Minister. He was given a room at 24, Akbar Road next to Indira's. Rajiv's words mattered most and most Ministers in Indira's Cabinet were often seen waiting outside his office. Sonia’s own functional relationship with Rahul between 2006 and 2014 saw a clear demarcation when UPA Ministers, other than those belonging to Team Rahul (younger lot like Ajay Makan, RPN Singh, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot)  were not encouraged to call on him. As AICC general secretary, Rahul largely confined himself to activating the Youth Congress and the (NSUI)

Her bout of illness in 2011-12, the rise of Anna Hazare who led the India Against Corruption movement, Mukherjee's exit from the Cabinet, Manmohan's indecisiveness and influence of some ' durbari' Ministers and AICC functionaries in coal block allocations  and in the 2G scam gave UPA such a bad name that UPA 2 was doomed. It was at this juncture that Sonia appeared in a hurry to crown Rahul as her successor even as Narendra Modi appeared on the national horizon as a cult figure.

As Sonia turns 70,  the big question doing the rounds in the grand old party is whether  she will act judiciously and hand over the reins of the party to those who would fulfil her extension of love for Rajiv.

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