The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia Gandhi is putting together a new Congress which has begun to shine in contrast to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is no doubt a beneficiary of the anti-incumbency feeling against the BJP. But the party is also acquiring a positive image because of its well-run state governments and the way the party itself is being run.

The BJP’s stint in power has made it fractious, divisive and directionless. It is involved in endless tangles. Almost anybody who is somebody in the BJP is fighting someone else either within the party or within the larger Hindutva family of organizations spawned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

There seems to be no clear chain of command in the BJP. And the attempts at excessive interference in governance by the RSS and the Hindutva organizations have made it amply clear to the people that the BJP is not an independent entity but an integral part of a structure of organizations. It is a horse with many riders, each attempting to take the animal in a different direction.

No doubt the Congress has benefited from the negative public perception of the BJP. However, it would be a mistake to think that the Congress is coming into public reckoning once again only because of the faults of the BJP. The party is also doing something right. Otherwise, there is no way that it could have formed governments in 14 states in the country.

The Congress today is undergoing a remarkable transformation. It presents a picture of stability in leadership and structure; its chief ministers are accountable; there is a broad programmatic unity in the party; the political decision-making is through genuine, widespread consultations; and most importantly, the party displays internal discipline.

By steadily emphasizing these goals, Sonia Gandhi is actually putting together a new Congress. The post-1999 period has seen Sonia Gandhi coming into her own. The influence of the coterie of old Congress leaders or access-controllers from Rajiv Gandhi’s era over Sonia Gandhi is no longer there. Her ability to deal with the anti-BJP parties and understand the machinations and motivations of a Harkishen Singh Surjeet or a Mulayam Singh Yadav has improved tremendously.

Her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, had been swept into power with ease in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, defeating the other national parties. He, therefore, did not think much of them. Rajiv had inherited a victorious Congress. Sonia Gandhi, however, was lumbered with a defeated Congress forced to sit in the opposition with its bête noire, the BJP, in power and at the helm of an anti-Congress coalition. Her job of trying to bring the party back into the reckoning at the national level was, therefore, rendered far more difficult. She has had to develop a healthy appreciation of the other national parties and take their strengths and weaknesses into account.

Indeed, it can be argued that Sonia Gandhi has been able to reorganize the Congress because unlike her husband she has had to learn politics the hard way. Her emphasis on not destabilizing state governments run by the party also shows that she is different from Indira Gandhi. Party insiders claim that while Indira Gandhi enjoyed politics for the sake of politics, Sonia Gandhi has a far more serious and perhaps a managerial approach to it. Indira Gandhi’s penchant for dismissing chief ministers was legendary. But under Sonia Gandhi, Congress chief ministers have tended to enjoy remarkable stability.

Sonia Gandhi’s Congress has perhaps realized that at a time when the polity is passing through a volatile phase, a fractious political leadership is not appreciated by the people — the nerves of the public are already frayed and it is in no mood to view the antics of the political class with any degree of indulgence.

Therefore, there is not even a single instance of Sonia Gandhi introducing instability in Congress-run states. Not a single chief minister has been changed since 1999. She has desisted from promoting local factions which might destabilize them.

The net result is that Congress chief ministers do not have to look over their shoulder constantly. However, they also know that their performance is being monitored by the party high command and that they have to operate with accountability. They are forced to meet regularly to exchange views on the best practices of governance, outside experts are invited to brief them on a wide variety of subjects ranging from national security to the problems of Indian agriculture and intensive consultations are held about future tactics and strategies.

If Sonia Gandhi interferes in matters of her party-run states, it is only on major issues and that too to nudge the chief ministers in the right direction. Thus, for example, she advised the Karnataka chief minister, S.M. Krishna, not to take on the Supreme Court on the Cauvery river water issue and warned the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, not to push his agenda against the Akali leader, Parkash Singh Badal, too far.

Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is also remarkable for its emphasis on programmatic unity. Gone are the days when the Congress was seen as a broad platform where every shade of political opinion could be aired. Sonia Gandhi has knit together a cohesive, consolidated and programme-oriented party. Targets and time frames for achieving them are set and there is a regular stock-taking of successes and failures.

This is the result both of her emerging as the sole leader of the party as well as her corporate approach to running the party. She is punctual, meets people on time and finishes interviews and meetings as scheduled. A consequence of following this approach has been the emphasis on consultative decision-making in the party. The post-1999 Sonia Gan- dhi is not known to go by the opinion of any single person. In fact, party insiders claim that she often suffers from an information overdose because of the diversity of views sought on every issue.

Lastly, her emphasis on internal party discipline is such that while there is debate within the party, the differences never surface in public. Take the most recent case of forming a coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party. Nobody knows for sure what the individual positions of the various Congress leaders on the issue were and how they came to agree to hand over the chief ministership first to Sayeed.

While Sonia Gandhi is reorganizing and reorienting her party, there are still two negatives that she has to counter. One is that while her managerial approach to running the party may be efficient, it is not a substitute for a vision. No one knows what is Sonia Gandhi’s vision for India.

Two, while she has proved to be a good leader of the Congress, it is not at all clear whether even people within her own party want her to be the next prime minister of India. They respect her, trust her, give her credit for rejuvenating the party but there is a sentiment that a country of one billion people ought to be able to throw up a prime minister who is of Indian origin. It is not a rational argument but a sentimental one. One is not sure whether Sonia Gandhi even acknowledges it, leave alone appreciate it.

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