The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- In Indian politics, gesture is as important as programme

No one but no one expected events to turn the way they did on a late March afternoon when Sonia Gandhi chose to resign her seat in Parliament. She simultaneously chose to leave the key position that has enabled her to work in tandem with government, the national advisory council.

The political ripple effects of this exit will be felt for long.

This is not the first but the third time Sonia has chosen to say no. The first instance, forgotten by most observers, was in the aftermath of the assassination of her husband, the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991. The Congress working committee unanimously affirmed her as the party's choice to lead it as president. It hardly needed to add that she would be expected to lead it if it were to form the government. Sonia chose to stay away, and declined the offer.

By the second time, she was the choice of an alliance that was all set to form the government in May 2004. This time, and we have it on Rahul Gandhi's authority, she had made up her mind well in advance. Having brought the party, its allies and the post-poll allies, the left, to the brink of power, she chose to stay out of office.

On both occasions, she was mindful of the ire and anger of a section of the opposition. In May 2004, leading Bharatiya Janata Party figures such as Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti were vying with each other to lead an anti-foreigner agitation. Had she become the prime minister and had there been no obstacle save her own will, Sonia would have faced a strident campaign from the votaries of Hindutva.

By stepping aside, she took the wind out of their sails. This time round, there was much that was amiss, if not in her gesture but at least in the prelude to it. Once Jaya Bachchan's case was decided by the Central Election Commission, it was clear the sword of Damocles hung over several other members of parliament. Since the posts she held were not specifically exempt under the relevant legislation (most recently amended in 1999 under the National Democratic Alliance), Sonia was in danger of losing her seat in the House.

Talk of an ordinance has now been dismissed by no less than the Union parliamentary affairs minister, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. But the undue haste with which the two Houses were adjourned sine die will give credence to the idea that the government did consider such an option.

It was eventually saved by a leader who saved not only herself but also the ruling alliance from much embarrassment. In fact, she did much more. In a country where elected representatives cling on to power till the very last minute, she chose to walk.

Here, she broke with the precedent set by her illustrious mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. Her press secretary, the erudite H.Y. Sharda Prasad, recalled in an essay that when she chose to fight, she fought to the last. Yet, the choice she made in June 1975 after the Allahabad high court set aside her election from Rae Bareli set an unhealthy precedent. It also played a key role in the denouement that led to the Emergency. Not to mention the amendment of the Representation of the People Act to shield her from further judicial action and intervention.

By hindsight, Sonia's best friends were in the opposing camp. Having lived through those momentous months in the Seventies, the leaders of both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party were sure of what would follow. True to its past, the Congress would rush through an ordinance and invite the wrath of the articulate classes if not the masses. A mass contact programme would then paint the Congress as a power-hungry machine led by a leader who would rewrite the laws rather than observe them in spirit.

Here, they did not allow for a change of script. No leader worth his or her salt simply re-runs the reel of history. Success comes to those who learn creatively and sensibly from the past.

There is no doubt at all that Sonia checkmated her opponents. Before this her own government and party failed to anticipate the implications of the expulsion of Jaya from the Rajya Sabha. More seriously, neither the government nor the party was able to counsel her in a sensible and logical manner until she took the extraordinary step of tendering her resignation.

But at a wider level, it was the opposition that misread the larger political picture. Indira's crisis in 1975 had deeper and wider roots. Her alienation from the people set in once the lustre of the Bangladesh war had begun to fade and inflation (over 20 per cent a year) had begun to bite. Her party was also isolated with only the Communist Party of India for company as Jayprakash Narayan launched his stir in Bihar and Gujarat. The ruling party was at odds with the major political currents of the day. The declaration of the Emergency was only the culmination of a crisis.

The situation today is as different as chalk from cheese. The Congress heads a multi-party alliance government, and has the four-party left bloc for company in strategy if not in office. The Congress workers outside 10 Janpath may not evoke sympathy in the middle class mind with their histrionics. But they got one thing right: most of the slogans were against Advani and the BJP.

Sonia has another factor working in her favour, namely the level to which norms, rules and conventions are flouted by today's leaders. Thirty odd years ago, no other party had tasted power at the Centre and there had been only brief spells of non-Congress rule in most states. The picture today is a very different one and not all the changes are for the better. Take the issue of offices of profit. A Union minister, T Subbirami Reddy, heads the most well endowed religious trust in all of Asia, the Tirupati Tirumalai Devasthanam Trust. Questions are bound to be raised about Sharad Pawar's office in the Board of Cricket Control of India.

The opposition is not out of the picture. V.K. Malhotra heads an all-India sports body and Arun Jaitley the Delhi District Cricket Association. In Jharkhand, as many as 11 members of the legislative assembly have their membership of the House at risk, threatening the fragile majority of the Arjun Munda ministry. And to complete the circle, Amar Singh has said he will not resign from the Rajya Sabha as his party has asked him to stay on.

It is against this backdrop that Sonia Gandhi's resignation must be seen. Indian politics is about symbol, gesture and idiom as much as it is about programme and platform.

She may have broken with Indira's precedent by choosing to resign. But there is a parallel that comes to mind. During the race for the premiership after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi wrote to her son Rajiv. She quoted Robert Frost. 'To be king is within the situation,' she wrote, 'And within me.'

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