The author is an independent researcher and political analyst
There is little doubt that the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s origins has been raked up to stymie her bid to take the Congress to centre stage and assert its right to be an alternative party of power. No sooner had her former ally, J Jayalalithaa, raised the issue, than other leaders spoke up on the question.
Each is aware that there is a rush to fill the political vacuum as the ruling coalition struggles to retain its support. The issue has been raised with an eye not on the past but on the future.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has responded with enthusiasm. Arun Jaitley assures us it is very much on the agenda of the ruling alliance. And true to form, the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, thinks it is only those who wear spectacles “made in Italy” who see anything remiss in the way he has run his home state.
The sidelight to the debate is more revealing. The man who led the Congress in the last Lok Sabha, and split the party on the eve of the 13th general elections, thinks this is not the appropriate time to raise the question. The priority, Sharad Pawar told delegates at the Nationalist Congress Party conference last week, is to fight the ruling Hindutva forces. Nothing should detract from this central task. Sonia Gandhi, he adds, is not a candidate in the forthcoming assembly polls.
Shrewd observer that he is, Pawar has realized what some of his compatriots have not. The Sonia issue can only be played up on the eve of a general election or in its immediate aftermath. It can sow doubts in the minds of those who turn to the Congress as custodian of power. It can unify a divided opposition at a time when little else will. But as he has realized in Mumbai, it is easy to throw stones at the Congress, but much more difficult to avoid doing business with it.
Far more than in April 1999, when she made her first spectacular political blunder, Sonia Gandhi is now in control of her party and its various wings. All 13 Congress chief ministers defer to her. It is under her stewardship that their party returned to power in states as critical as Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra. More to the point, she has rebuilt once fragile ties with the left parties. All this puts her in a stronger position than in the Congress Pawar knew.
Far from the unsteady campaigner she was a few years ago, she sometimes even manages to hit the government where it hurts. Her problem goes deeper than her origins. For she is not and has yet to become a political fighter willing to stake all. The party she inherited was divided, dispirited and weak. Though in better shape now, it is still a small, fragile force in four states crucial to a comeback: Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Acceptance as a party leader may be complete and few outside the Congress would question its right to elect whom it pleases as its chief. But she has a long way to go before her name becomes a winning talisman, the way Indira Gandhi’s was. It was her popularity at large that was the source of her power over the Congress, and not vice versa.
Few now care to recall how hard Indira Nehru-Gandhi had to work to win a place in the hearts and minds of the people. As a minister of information and broadcasting, she bided her time, and in her early days Ram Manohar Lohia even labelled her a “goongi gudiya” or dumb doll. More than because of the Congress split it was through the image of a friend of the poor and then as victor of the Bangladesh war that she attained a degree of power none of her successors have dreamt of.
In Sonia Gandhi’s case, the idea of her critics is simple. They question her claim to the clan and family, of its history and its pivotal role in national affairs, by citing her “alien-ness” as proof of unacceptability. Such a concept is grist to the mill of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which views all adherents of “non-Hindu” faiths as outsiders. It does not matter whether they have lived in India for decades or their ancestors have walked the face of the land for centuries. They are alien by faith. Modi meant this when he named the chief election commissioner and the leader of the opposition in the same breath.
Needless to add, members of minority faiths are not alone. Many are labelled outsiders in the states they reside in if they do speak a different tongue. And some are not accepted as equals as they are from groups lower down the social ladder of caste or tribe.
Of course, this does not qualify Sonia Gandhi to lead India. But an attack on her rights is the thin end of the wedge. Those who call for her rights to be curbed today will turn on others tomorrow. A citizen is a citizen. Unless India wants to go down the road towards a dual form of citizenship and set up discrimination for and against certain groups.
At the moment, outside of the middle classes, there seems no strong current of opinion against the “outsider”. Neither the decline of the Congress nor its inability to win power is on account of her origins. The erosion of its base began in Indira and Rajiv’s day, all reverses of the trend having been temporary or localized.
In fact, a strong offensive on democratic lines would win support from a wide section provided the Congress links this to the insecurities and fears of those who feel excluded. The drive against Sonia is a variant of the Hindu Mahasabha’s accusation in the Twenties that Motilal Nehru was a beef-eating Brahmin. In the early Seventies, the chant of then marginal Hindutva groups against Indira Gandhi was simple. A widow could not be trusted to run the country. The Congress fought back then but is silent now. It had a vision and a programme with which it could rally support and brush these charges aside. Part of the problem is that it is now increasingly a force bereft of ideas. Its crisis is a genuine one and Sonia or the Congress high command’s atrophied responses are only a symptom of its malaise.
The party faces assault on two fronts. The BJP can and will steal its nationalist colours, and equate party interests with national ones. Regional groups undercut the Congress from below, often drawing on women, the poor and the underprivileged castes who were once the backbone of the world’s largest social democratic party.
The foreign origins issue can confuse the Congress. But it can do more, or so Jayalalithaa hopes. It can also serve as tether for a diverse array of forces, each with strong regional roots and an anti-Congress history. General elections are now just two years away. The non-Congress forces hope to neutralize a Sonia candidacy to head a post National Democratic Alliance government. This will open up the space for a claimant from outside the Congress’s ranks.
The easiest way to forestall that would be for Sonia to openly declare she desires no post at all. But this may open up a messy struggle in her own party. It may even speed the entry of the next generation of the Gandhis into public life.
Whether that will work is anybody’s guess. What the party needs is more than a fresh face: it needs an overhaul, a promise of something new and different.