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It is a tribute to the inclusive traditions of India that Sonia Gandhi has been propelled to the position where she can be the prime minister of India. Yet having to prove her Indianness every inch of the way may well become a major handicap for her.
Her detractors are unlikely to give up her “foreign origin” issue and would continue to agitate around it. It is this single issue that would be used to judge her competence each step of her way.
Sound political judgment comes with experience and Sonia Gandhi lacks the necessary political experience. Her aloofness will not give her the same kind of access to information as politicians who have had greater interaction with the people can have. Her children cannot be her only windows on the world. Nor can genuflecting Congressmen suddenly evolve spines and do this for her.
Her foremost challenge, therefore, would be to create around her a team of politicians and officials who would be self-effacing, competent and not afraid of voicing critical opinion. If they are sycophantic, her fate will be same as of those who came to believe that India was shining.
Her success or failure would also be judged on how successfully she thwarts attempts to tear the Indian social fabric asunder. There can be little doubt that a Bharatiya Janata Party in retreat is likely to create more social tensions than when it was expanding its political frontiers by being in power. The BJP is likely to be held captive by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as never before. Sonia Gandhi, therefore, must design both tactical and strategic ways of dealing with the possibilities of heightened social tension.
Internal security and attempts at destroying social harmony are, therefore, going to be major challenges for the new government. If Bombay, Ahmedabad and Delhi start erupting again with terrorist violence, those waiting in the wings to communalize the situation will jump in to do so. Sonia Gandhi will need a strong home minister who can keep these tensions in check, especially in the BJP-run states that are likely to defy her authority.
There are some blemishes that a society must neither forgive nor forget. The Israelis are still bringing to book those responsible for the Holocaust. Narendra Modi’s pogrom in Gujarat was an unprecedented event in the history of independent India and the collective sin of the state in perpetrating it and then protecting the guilty has to be expiated.
The foremost task of the new home minister, therefore, should be to send Narendra Modi and his acolytes where they belong. After thorough investigation, conspiracy cases should be registered forthwith against the high and mighty in the state government who not only hunted with the hounds in the riots of 2002 but also unleashed them in the first place. Unless there is swift punishment for the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots, Sonia Gandhi can rest assured that she would not be taken seriously either by the sangh parivar or by those who have voted her to power.
Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign origin” must not haunt her in dealing with Pakistan. She should take the bull by the horns. On assuming office, she should pick up the phone to General Pervez Musharraf and boldly express India’s desire to resolve all outstanding issues.
She must not let her desire to project her nationalism come in the way of national interest by becoming hawkish in her Pakistan policy. But she cannot afford to be too dovish either and must deal with Islamabad from a position of strength. The Pakistani establishment suffers from a blackmailing mindset and refuses to give up the tap on terrorist activities in its attempt to control the engagement with India. In order not to become susceptible to Islamabad’s blackmail, deterrent capabilities have to be developed and maintained to counter cross-border terrorism. These capabilities must normally remain dormant. However, Islamabad should know that a blast in Mumbai could potentially trigger a bigger one in Karachi so that it desists from choosing that option.
Most importantly, however, Sonia Gandhi has to understand why she won and why the BJP lost these elections. Both the decimation of the BJP and the consequent recovery of the Congress were unexpected. That the intelligentsia did not foresee such a result is understandable. It has always had a penchant for living in a make-believe India of its imagination — one that is shining, is taken seriously by the world and where reality is expected to fit the image.
Even the BJP did not expect such a verdict because there is complete disconnect today between political parties and the Indian people. However, so generalized is this phenomenon that the same thing can happen to the Congress and the other political parties in the future.
The institutions of democratic governance — whether of Parliament, judiciary, the bureaucracy or the police — have declined precipitously. None of these facilitate the interaction of ordinary folk with the institutions of the state. The judiciary, the bureaucracy and the police cannot be changed directly by the people. Their anger then is directed against the failure of the political parties to redress the situation. It expresses itself as anti-incumbency when they exasperatedly vote out their political representatives.
To address this crisis of governance, the new government needs to identify, isolate and then professionalize the management of the core issues of concern to the poor of this country. Rajiv Gandhi launched technology missions and thanks to his vision and that of the much-maligned Sam Pitroda, there is widespread telecom connectivity in the country today. If rural roads, education of the girl-child, power generation, water supply, health and employment, for example, are the core issues (there may be others) then they should be pushed with a missionary zeal — getting rid of the bureaucracy and handing over their planning and execution to young professionals with fire in their belly.
Lastly, Sonia Gandhi’s challenge will be to rejuvenate the Congress to once again make it a two-way channel of communication between the people and the state. It is the only national party that has sympathizers, perhaps dormant but still present in every village of this country. They have to be politically legitimized and re-awakened. They must have a role in candidate selection not only in panchayat and municipal elections but also in the assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Unless Congress workers become stakeholders in the processes of political power, candidature for elections will be purchased through sleaze, money or dynastic right.
India is going through a youth bulge — nearly 70 per cent of its population is below 35 years of age. The Congress must tap this storehouse of talent. The Congress should ensure that the transition of party leadership to this generation begins and this does not necessarily mean to the children of known Congress leaders alone.
These youngsters can then begin organizing people at the grassroots around identities that are larger than caste identities. If the Congress is to make inroads into the caste-ridden states of north India, then the organizing principle of the party and its front organizations has to be one that is larger than caste. Casteism or caste-based allies can be used to fight communalism only in the short-run.