The author is an independent researcher and political analyst
Sonia Gandhi’s leadership got a fillip from the conclave of a dozen Congress chief ministers at Mount Abu. She has a series of tough battles ahead, but there is little doubt now about either her grip over the party or her ambition to lead it in the next general election. Yet it is a continuing measure of the lack of certainty about the future that prompted questions about creating a second line of leadership and about the policy on coalitions. The way in which these questions were handled indicates the sense of confidence that continues to gain ground in the opposition party because of the non-performance of the Vajpayee regime and the divisions that plague the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Congress is not alone in being at a crossroads. Sonia Gandhi is not only the first foreign-born leader to head the party in post-independence India. She is also set to be the first to have headed it as leader of the opposition for a full five years. This is where the nub of the party’s problem lies. It is so accustomed to the trappings of power that it often lacks the reflexes of an alert opposition party.
Even her own induction into politics was prompted by a sense of drift among the leadership and the members in the Sitaram Kesri period. Initially, she resisted such attempts. After all, to quote her own words, it was she who had “fought like a tigress” in 1981 to keep her husband out of politics. Even when he entered the arena, she kept a low profile. She spurned the offer to head the party a decade later in the wake of his assassination.
The next phase was the one in which she was a party president under fire within and not fully in command of the vast and labyrinthine structure of the Congress. Even the stunning upset of the BJP in the north in the state assembly elections of December 1998 looked more like an anti-incumbency wave than an endorsement of her leadership.
The rebellion under Sharad Pawar was only the tip of the iceberg. Being a newcomer to the party, Sonia Gandhi lacked the normal channels of information available to old timers in politics to pick up signs of trouble before the revolt struck home. This was the Sonia one saw as late as April 1999, unsure of herself once she stepped beyond a closed circle of advisers, and unable to tap into the popular mood.
The election campaign of 1999 saw her and the Congress unable to grasp how far the Kargil war had actually consolidated the phalanx of forces that made up the National Democratic Alliance. Ironically, the removal of the Vajpayee government from office by a margin of one vote only solidified its standing in most states of the Union.
Since then there have been two different forces that have pushed Sonia Gandhi into her present role. One was the failure of the NDA in a more comprehensive manner than even its worst critics could have imagined. The Gujarat massacres in early 2002 were a culmination of a process of alienating the middle of the road voter who had hoped it would give the country a new direction and better governance.
The BJP today looks a pale carbon copy of the energetic force it was in the Advani period in the early Nineties. The only dynamism that there is seems to be in the Narendra Modi tendency which will, if allowed to grow unchecked, wreck any bid by the party to retain the middle ground. As the ruling party appears divided and a strong element within it more strident, the opposition gains if only by default.
The second factor pushing Sonia Gandhi to the fore is the continuing inability of the regional and left-wing parties to carve out a distinctive space at the pan-Indian level. In contrast to the Nineties, when the Congress was burdened with the tag of having been a mute spectator to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it has now recovered some of its pluralist credentials.
It also has the advantage of being in the opposition at a time when the government faces tough decisions on the economic front. The ambiguity that marks the Congress’s stance vis à vis disinvestment, for instance, is a classic case of the fudging that a party can indulge in when it is not in office. By being all things to all persons, it can tap into discontent while keeping options open for the day when it holds the reins of power.
All this is but an academic debate for the Congress. Its members have one fervent hope: that Sonia Gandhi and she alone will bring in the votes to win the next general elections. But even they realize that this is an uphill task.
Set aside the virtual absence of the party in four key states of the Union, namely Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Let us not even take up the repeated string of poor performances in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Leave alone the deep fissures in the traditional Congress camp represented by the Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.
Quite apart from all of these seismic shifts in the polity, the Congress has not appreciated the connection between its own decline and the limitations of its current revival strategy. The fragmented nature of the electorate and increasing regional polarization make it difficult for one party to dominate the political system.
The projection of Sonia Gandhi as an Indira Mark II has a fatal flaw. It fails to account for the sweeping changes that have made it impossible for any one leader to straddle the political landscape like a colossus. That moment has passed. If the oldest party in India thinks it can revive itself by playing an old tune it will be in for a rude shock.
The BJP’s own bid to elevate Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the status of a national icon worked for a very brief moment. If his lustre has now dimmed it is not only a reflection of his policies but also reflects a major change in the nature of the polity.
The Congress’s case is altogether more complex. Having scoffed at coalitions, its leader now says she has “an open mind”. But even she knows that unless her party wins a majority of its own, the other partners will stymie any bid to bring in a strong Congress head of government. The party may trust a member of the Nehru family to revive its fortunes: the other parties would see this as the first nail in their own coffins.
It is here that Sonia Gandhi’s dilemmas become very different from those faced by Indira or Rajiv Gandhi. The former headed off decline by centralizing power. The latter managed to topple a non-Congress government but was unable to reverse the decline of the party.
All they had to ensure was that the opposition was divided: this alone ensured victory. Since 1989, the Congress has slipped from the position of primacy it once enjoyed. As it enters a world in which deals with other players will have to be made, it will find its own options shrinking.
The key will lie in how it plays its cards. A taste of this was evident in UP, where it refused to play the Samajwadi Party’s game. The challenge however lies not in the mastery of palace politics as much as in convincing the people at large that the country is safest if in its hands. That is still a long way off.