The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A party that cannot win might as well wind up

Nationality is an artificial and irrational construct. The world is divided into nations, and nations have governments. They devise rules on nationality that they find politically convenient. But wherever there is a government, there must be the governed; and a democratic government ought to be responsible to all whom it governs. That means residents of the geographical area administered by the government; it does not matter where they were born, or what is the colour of their skin, or how long they have been where they are. So in my view, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Argentinians, Bulgarians — whoever is in India should have voting rights and a right to the services of the government.

On rulers, I have even more extreme views. I believe that anyone in the world who wants to should be allowed to come and fight elections in this country. The quality of our ruling class is extremely poor; the quality of the political class from whom it is recruited is even poorer. It can only be improved if some foreigner — someone not resident in India — takes the trouble to come to this country and enter politics. The argument that a country of one billion should be able to find good enough rulers within itself does not convince me at all. Even if we could find good rulers in this country — which we cannot — we should import more competent ones if they are prepared to come.

That is why I have always viewed with distaste the campaign politicians, mostly of the Hindu extremist variety, have carried on against Sonia Gandhi. Here is a woman who has lived almost all her adult life in this country, who has watched politics at close quarters and known the most accomplished politicians of the country, and who has bothered to learn that funny language called Hindi. That is ample qualification for being a politician — even the prime minister.

Whether she should become prime minister has nothing to do with the fact that her parents are Italian, that she was born in Italy, that she belongs to the white race; these considerations are utterly irrelevant. The question to ask is, can she lead the Congress to power' And having done so, what sort of PM should she make'

It is not a great qualification, but she is a far better chairman than her husband. She knows how to conduct meetings, how to consult people, how to lead them to decisions. She can delegate. Her star is waning today because of the defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. But the chief ministers of the three states had run their states with complete autonomy; the defeats are theirs. Sonia is a complete contrast to Rajiv Gandhi, who was extremely impetuous, often imperious, unnecessarily interfering, and sometimes extremely silly.

Her misfortune is that she has presided over a party in decline. The Bharatiya Janata Party has stolen so many of her party men. It has worked out the secret of gaining power: forget politicians’ antecedents, and reward them in proportion to their role in keeping the party in power. With this simple formula, it has lured away Congressmen by the hordes. In vast parts of the country, the Congress has been left with tired old men. This is not the picture everywhere; but by and large, the BJP has far more numerous and younger second and third ranks.

Those that are left are not always election winners; so they court the leader. There has been for long something feudal about the Congress — a big leader rewarding courtiers or throwing them on the rubbish bin. The tradition really emerged in the times of Indira Gandhi. She was extremely paranoid; loyalty was the only qualification she required. But she was also popular. She could win elections. So even if she had monkeys in her working committee, it did not matter.

With Sonia it does. For she is not in Indira’s class. I admire the pains she has taken to learn Hindi; I admire her speeches. But that is admiration for her speechwriters. She does not set people on fire. Elections are a battle, you need to inspire your troops for it. She just does not. And I do not think it is just the fault of the speechwriters. However much I may defend her right to be in Indian politics, including the right to be PM, I just do not think she is a winning leader.

In any normal political party, a leader who cannot win would be voted out. Consigned to the opposition, the British conservatives have changed leaders three times in the last seven years; the Canadian conservatives have done so twice in the past ten years. The German conservatives have developed a consortium to lead them; Angela Merkel, the formal leader, is not the only one being projected. Winning is all-important in politics; a party that cannot win might as well wind up. But much before that it will behead its leader.

The Congress has done it too. After his defeat, it got rid of Narasimha Rao, and anointed that curmudgeonly Sitaram Kesri. He was an even bigger failure, so it brought in Sonia Gandhi. Everyone is focused on Sonia’s love for power; but she was placed where she is by the choice of the party. And she has stayed there because, leaving out the general elections, the party had done quite well.

Except in the last round of elections; and that has already started her thinking. She has gone back on the Simla message, that coalitions with other parties were possible only if they accepted her as PM. But this retreat is of doubtful value. For it throws the prime ministership open to dozens of leaders, her party’s as well as alliance partners’; now Laloo and Mulayam will insist on prime ministership. And in the squabbling that will now begin, the Congress may lose the next general election as well. And make no mistake, if it does lose, Sonia’s crown will be in danger.

What the Congress needs is not such gestures, but a combat force. Not a combat force of septuagenarians, but of leaders in their thirties and forties. Not leaders living in Lutyens bungalows in Delhi, but leaders with a local presence. They may be chief ministers, ex-chief ministers, or others. But the fate of the Congress in the coming elections will depend on provincial leadership.

What Sonia should do is forget the working committee, and call together a combat committee of provincial leaders — not just from the Congress but also from potential allies. She should chair the committee — but it should not be a vapid, feudal committee of the Congress sort. If she finds that her presence stultifies it, she should let someone else — say, P. Chidambaram, or Digvijay Singh — run it.

The committee should certainly ask on what issues the Congress should run elections. But above all, it should look at the political arithmetic, and devise a strategy for limiting the BJP’s seat count. The lower it is, the more difficult the BJP will find to cobble up a coalition. This is no longer the time to hold great meetings at Shivaji Park; it is the time to craft winning strategies on the ground. It worked in Kashmir; it can work in India. But only if the Congress manages to shake off its feudal lassitude.

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