COURTLY INTRIGUES - Sonia Gandhi?s leadership style is proving costly for the Congress

Read more below

By Pratap Bhanu Mehta The author is president, Centre for Policy Research
  • Published 26.04.06

In his ?travelogue?, From Sea to Sea, Kipling, while observing courtly intrigues in princely Rajasthan, suggests something to the effect that courtly politics can be far more intense than real politics. In actual politics, the politician has to submit himself to a nebulous entity called public opinion; ambition has to be tailored to a real ability to sway people. In courtly politics on the other hand, the only thing that counts is second-guessing the monarch?s wishes. This, paradoxically, fuels the wildest ambitions. All kinds of individuals, who might not be able to sway the masses, who might not have real strength of character or brilliance of intellect, think they can do two things: embarrass rivals, and ingratiate themselves with the sovereign. A lot depends upon the signals the monarch sends. Who does he intend to put in charge? What does he want done? What are the limits no one is allowed to cross? Kipling writes, ?It must always be borne in mind that everything that has been done, was carried through over and under unlimited intrigue, for Jodhpur is a Native State. Intrigue must be met with intrigue by all except Gordons or demi-gods; and it is curious to hear how a reduction in tariff, or a smoothing out of some tangled Court, had to be worked by shift and byway.?

When Kipling wrote this, Jodhpur was undertaking serious reform of its court and justice system. In order to make it a success, Jodhpur appointed a ?Punjabi Sirdar?, Har Dayal Singh. Kipling?s gloss on this was: ?it is not easy to circumvent a Punjabi.? He then went on to pay Jodhpur and Har Dayal Singh a compliment, ?The details of his work would be dry reading. The result of it is good, and there is justice in Marwar, and order and firmness in its administration.?

Even if we mind Kipling?s attribution of characteristics to ?native? states, or Punjabis, it is difficult to avoid seeing the resonance of this episode in what is unfolding in Delhi. During the last few days, it has become apparent that there is no longer a single government in Delhi, but a succession of ministers jostling for limelight, ideological prominence and sheer power. In every episode, whether it involves Arjun Singh or Saifuddin Soz or H.R. Bharadwaj, the prime minister?s position is becoming more reactive than proactive. On a range of issues, from the Nepal crisis to Naxalism, from reservations to Narmada, you begin to wonder who exactly is in charge. The image of the government is unravelling, not under demands from the allies but by each minister appearing to chart his own course. The ?non-political? head of this drama, the prime minister, who, in his own ?dry? way, is supposed to be the source of justice, order and firmness ? as much of a statement of a political philosophy we will ever have ? is being easily circumvented to the point where the agenda of his own administration does not appear to be under his control.

Delhi is a town where there are as many narratives as there are insiders. So no one is quite sure what exactly is happening inside the Congress party. Whose ambitions are creeping or soaring? What shape does the party want to give to this country? Where does it stand on crucial issues like reservations? There is no doubt that the prime minister?s authority is being challenged and dissipated on a range of important moral and constitutional matters, and the prime minister has not done enough to recuperate his own stature or vision. But equally, there is little doubt that the blame for much of this disorder lies squarely with Sonia Gandhi. When the ?Queen? does not make her ideological intentions clear, or puts her weight firmly behind her chosen men, intrigue and ideological uncertainty are an inevitable consequence. Every courtier feels empowered to vie for the coveted position of diwan, every policy choice becomes plausibility, and there is no one at the head who cannot be circumvented.

For what it is worth, I have argued that extending reservations to other backward classes in Central institutions is not warranted for a variety of reasons. Whatever one?s views on extending reservations to the OBCs, the manner in which the debate has come to the fore is a disgrace to the Congress. In any scenario, the party looks bad. If Arjun Singh took the initiative on his own, why is he being tolerated? If he did not take the initiative on his own, why does not the party have the courage to own up to its convictions? Arjun Singh is correct in one crucial respect: the issue of reservations has been on the radar since the constitutional amendment enabling it was passed. If the party, to this point, has no considered view on the subject, then it is either being extremely evasive, or it takes important decisions in a fit of absentmindedness. Either way it looks bad.

What Sonia Gandhi?s leadership style has done within the Congress is add to ideological uncertainty and factional intrigue. There is one policy measure that Sonia Gandhi has made her own: the employment guarantee Scheme. For a brief moment, she appeared to salvage her reputation by resigning from her seat, not as an act of sacrifice but because it was the right thing to do. It is often difficult to fathom what she thinks of a range of important issues. But what emerges from her actions is a style that is a throwback to the days and ideological predilections of Indira Gandhi: a distrust of genuinely popular local leaders, undue tolerance of the improprieties of those whose power depends upon her, little respect for constitutional norms, little attempt to articulate the core convictions of the party, and an emphasis on an improvised populism rather than serious reform of the state. The circumstances are different: Sonia Gandhi is not Indira Gandhi, and India itself has transformed beyond recognition. But the Congress?s ideology and culture are still struggling to catch up. The Congress is doing its best to sow the seeds of the kind of reactionary politics that was a result of its stints in power.

Sonia Gandhi?s leadership style imposes many costs on the Congress: it has long prevented its organizational renewal, and the stress on loyalty over propriety has saddled the cabinet with ministers who are constitutional and intellectual liabilities. But its most corrosive effect is deeper and often unremarked: it has created a party where there is almost no leader whose thoughts are their own. There are few ?intellectuals? who can be forceful qua intellectuals. As Congress party members, they are reduced to fitting into a paradigm rather than helping to shape it. In fact, the remarkable thing about what Arjun Singh did was that he actually took a policy initiative and claimed responsibility for it. But what the party has spawned is a culture of second- guessing what Sonia Gandhi might think, and second-guessing is not the same as thinking.

Is the current tussle between the prime minister and Arjun Singh a genuine tussle? Push comes to shove, do they really have opposed views on reservations? If they do, why has Arjun Singh been allowed to go this far? Or is it like the moderate extremist duet the Bharatiya Janata Party used to put on to allow Atal Bihari Vajpayee to have his cake and eat it too? If, indeed, the prime minister does not share Arjun Singh?s views, then this particular round of courtly intrigue has got to be a fight to the finish: it is difficult to fathom how the prime minister could continue to tolerate a minister who has openly challenged his authority. Or will the prime minister fall more in line with the Arjun Singh-view of the world? Unfortunately, the answer to whether Manmohan Singh, unlike Kipling?s Har Dayal Singh, can be circumvented may not lie in his own hands: it will depend upon Sonia Gandhi.