The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An alternative coalition cannot win with Sonia Gandhi as its leader

Nothing could be more bizarre — or more obscene. The Republic of India, the largest democracy in the world, is supposed to be a-throb with hope and expectation. She has a tryst with a magnificent, technological destiny as befits the 21st century. But she cannot make it. She is being held back by an unholy cabal of holy men steeped in obscurantism. Some of them have emerged as principal news-makers, and dictating terms to the government. As if this nation has no other pre-occupations, alongside the three-pronged trisul, these religious characters have a two-pronged agenda: worship of the cow and building a temple. The tryst with the 21st century could wait.

And yet what is the alternative' True, even with solid support from those two short-term philosophers — the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — the Bharatiya Janata Party and its partners are most unlikely to capture the loyalty of more than 30 per cent of the electorate in the Lok Sabha poll next year. This 30 per cent share of the total vote should however prove more than adequate to provide them a mandate for another five years. The opposition vote is going to be distributed among the Congress, the left and the various shades of groups and parties representing, or claiming to represent, the Dalits and other backward classes. With multiple contests in most of the 500-odd constituencies, the National Democratic Alliance is bound to romp home.

Once that happens, there would be no stopping of the parivar. And should there be no stopping of the parivar, it would be curtain-call for the Indian polity itself. Because the constituents of the parivar are intolerant, it would be absurd to presume that the rest of the Indian population, who detest their pranks, would continue to be tolerant for ever. Some sections, who could not take it any more, would decide to walk out of the polity. This process of departure would of course be the goriest of affairs. It would, in any event, liquidate all prospects of an Indian republic blessed by inter-community harmony, rapid growth and wholesome equity. But if such is the fate that the Indian nation digs for itself, no external force could extricate it from this denouement. Even imperial America would not be able to save Akhand Bharat and hand it on a platter to the obscurantists.

Let us though, for the sake of argument, imagine an alternative road-map where what is rather improbable still eventuates, that is to say, the various opposition elements agree to form next year a grand alliance against the BJP brigade; they suspend their reservations and place a moratorium on their ego trips. Let us also assume that they agree a priori to accept, following the elections, the leader of the Congress party as the new prime minister.

Most of the difficulties will centre around this second assumption. It is no use building castles in the air. There is no point wearing blinkers. Even a united opposition is likely to fail in the 2004 polls if the lady at 10 Janpath is the presumptive prime minister in the post-post-non-NDA government. Although it might seem so, this conclusion is no obiter dictum and has little to do with her foreign birth. In their heart of hearts, Indians are generous to a fault. Study the country’s history over the past one-and-a-half centuries, it will be possible to come across the case of at least three foreign-born ladies who became an indistinguishable part of the central ethos of Indian nationalism: the Irishwoman, Madeline Slade, Annie Besant and Nellie Sengupta. Each of them was worshipped by the Indian masses.

Madeline Slade, better known as Sister Nivedita, was the foremost disciple of Vivekananda, the seer revered as much by the BJP leadership as by several strands of home-bred Marxists. Annie Besant, the formidable theosophist, not only presided over the Indian National Congress, but she was also said to be a secret financier of terrorist groups pledged to gun down the British usurpers. Nellie Sengupta was also president of the Congress during the phase of the civil disobedience movement when the party had gone underground. The post-independence landscape has somewhat different contours, but the flow of magnanimity has not quite drained out of the nation; and this, despite the antics of the parivar. Other things remaining the same, Rajiv Gandhi’s widow would have been as acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the Indian people as the afore-mentioned ladies have been.

Unfortunately, other things are not the same. These are matters not pleasant to discuss, and yet, have to be discussed. Charles MacArthur, the American playwright and actor, had once expressed his disapproval of a New York high-society lady: she is “too enthroned”. That precisely is the problem with Sonia Gandhi too. Her Italian lineage is not the issue. The issue is her deportment. She perambulates along India’s boulevard in the manner of royalty born to royalty. This puts off the multitude who make up the Indian electorate. Sonia Gandhi, in other words, will not pull votes, but rather, detract from vote-gathering. Indira Gandhi too protected her aloofness. The personal chemistry between her and the masses was such though that distance actually added to enchantment. That chemistry is foreign to the daughter-in-law.

In social political concourses a hypothesis can be proved or disproved only after the event. The non-electability of Sonia Gandhi as India’s next prime minister too cannot be established as datum in advance. Therefore even if an all-inclusive coalition of diverse non-NDA elements is set up on the eve of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, this coalition will either have to take the plunge with Sonia Gandhi as prospective prime minister, or the Congress must be persuaded to choose another leader’s name for attaching to its masthead.

To broach the alternative suggestion to the Congress would however be to run the risk of a breakdown of the negotiations among the non-NDA groups. The Congress party is feudal to the core; it cannot be asked to divest itself of the dynastic arrangement. To be fair, it will not be a practical proposition either. For, as things stand, no one is available within the Congress who can replace the Nehru-Gandhi widow and yet keep the party intact. There must be at least half a dozen individuals in the party secretly nursing prime-ministerial ambition. The moment the writ of the dynasty is withdrawn and one amongst the half a dozen is elected as leader, the others are likely to walk out; please do not be surprised if some of them even join the BJP conclave.

It is an altogether bleak situation. An alternative coalition cannot win with Sonia Gandhi as its nominal leader. At the same time, without Sonia Gandhi, there is little possibility of a coherent and credible alternative formation with a united Congress in its fold. The reason the BJP leadership — notwithstanding its proven ineffectiveness in either improving the national economy or solving any of the basic problems afflicting the polity — presents such a picture of confidence is this lie of the land. Sonia Gandhi as presumptive alternative prime minister is BJP’s best bet — in fact, its insurance policy.

It will be relatively easy to pick holes in the syllogism laid out in these paragraphs. Suppose a miracle nevertheless occurs and a united opposition, under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, wins the next year’s poll. Those who look forward to a positive turn in the nation’s fate in the wake of that eventuality should still abandon their hope. As far as national economic policy is concerned, a Congress-led coalition will be basically no different from the present BJP-sponsored menagerie.

The feudal-capitalist order will continue to ride high, and the Americans will remain the ultimate decision-makers in the matter of major policy. And are we altogether sure that, even within the Congress, a phalanx of Hindu philosophers, all her inveterate manu devotees, will not emerge against the backdrop of the high Himalayas' The losers always win, because, in the Indian milieu, the losers in no time manage to join the winners. Another aspect of native magnanimity.

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