Harish Khare

In the last 10 years, Sonia Gandhi has presided over the Congress consolidation; can she now initiate change and innovation in a party mired in status quo and unworkable organisational culture?

In two days’ time, Sonia Gandhi will have completed 10 years as the president of the Indian National Congress. A remarkable feat of political longevity by the standards of leadership matrix in non-authoritarian systems. It was on March 14, 1998 that she gave the go-ahead to her managers to stage a constitutional coup against the then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri. On the morning of that fateful day, the Congress Working Committee asked Kesri to step down in her favour. The same evening, Ms Gandhi arrived triumphantly at the All India Congress Committee headquarters on 24, Akbar Road, and accepted the CWC invitation to take over the party in the name of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

To Ms. Gandhi’s credit, she had declined the crown on two previous occasions. Within days of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the CWC offered her the president’s post, as the logical political successor to her husband’s legacy. She declined, with grace and becoming dignity. Again, in May 1995, she wisely refused to lend her prestige and name to the break-away Tiwari Congress even though the Narayan Dutt Tiwari-Arjun Singh faction had let the world know that it was revolting against P.V. Narasimha Rao in her name. She advisedly stayed neutral and unaligned in the self-destructive factionalism; later when the time came, she quietly backed the Kesri interregnum after the Narasimha Rao innings came to an abrupt end; but then gave in to entreaties from her courtiers to take over after a totally unprepared Congress came a cropper in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, even though it was precipitated by her loyalists on the issue of alleged DMK involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

In December 1997, Ms Gandhi unilaterally announced her decision to campaign for the Congress in the 1998 poll. In essence, she offered herself as the new vote-catcher for the party. She distinctly failed to set the Ganges on fire. The carefully nurtured mystique was shattered but her coterie still managed to pile up the blame on the old, antiquated party president and insisted that it was about time she formally wore the crown. The build-up to the March 14, 1998 denouement was unsavoury and unbecoming of India’s oldest political party. Family became the sole currency of political legitimacy.

Arguably, the very nature of her takeover came to define Ms Gandhi’s leadership style. First, because Kesri was accused of not being able to keep the party together, she arrived at the AICC with a very heavy sense of noblesse oblige. Carry everyone — good, bad and ugly — along. Over the years, Ms Gandhi has admirably fulfilled the role of a party unifier, though she allowed Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma to part company. Nor has she been able to persuade Mamata Banerjee till this day to come back. She remains an indisputable symbol of unity and consolidation in the party.

Secondly, she unprotestingly allowed herself to be reduced to an electoral talisman. The original argument had to be sustained: only a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family could fetch vote for the party across the many diversities of caste, creed and class. Till this day, she remains locked in that trap.

Third followed from the second: she could never make demands on the partymen in terms of ideas and ideology; only individual loyalty was preferred in exchange for a putative Midas touch. This “win-votes-for-us” burden has also prevented her from locating her ideological anchor in visionary ideas. The Congress, in turn, remains a happy stranger to innovative ideas and policy literacy.

Back to March 1998. Within nine months of taking over the party, Ms Gandhi seemed to have galvanised it. The Congress scored a hat-trick, winning the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. The aroma of the Sonia magic was thick and heady. She found herself encouraging Subramanian Swamy to broker a rapprochement between her and AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa; three of them combined to bring down the Vajpayee government. The result was another Lok Sabha election within 14 months.

At the end of the 1999 Lok Sabha election, the Congress was in the same old thick soup. The Sonia magic stood totally dispelled. She was the party president and there was no one else who could be blamed for the Congress failure to cross even the 1998 tally. Worse, she had allowed herself to be projected as a prime ministerial aspirant, an unseemly outbreak of ambition, which, in turn, unleashed a fierce and, at times, ugly debate over her “foreign origin;” the end result was a massive decline in public esteem. The very Nehruvian secular state she had undertaken to rescue from the communalists was back in their grip. The bogus deshbhakts were back with a bang, and the Congressmen were staring at a long, bleak political winter.

The sobering experience of the 1999 defeat proved a kind of shock therapy for Ms Gandhi; the electoral setback did wonders for the evolution of a mature political persona. Gradually, she began to develop a healthy scepticism of all the durbaris who used to throng 10 Janpath and ritually reaffirm that the country was eagerly waiting to shower its affection and love on another standard-bearer from the Nehru-Gandhi family. She came to terms with the party’s vastly reduced political estate and depleted electoral fortunes.

Disengaging herself from the non-functioning dynastic mantras, Ms Gandhi quietly began the process of reaching out to non-Congress parties and players with a view to breaking up the three-decade-old tradition, tactics, and habits coalesced under anti-Congressism. As conceptualised and finessed by Ram Manohar Lohia, anti-Congressism was an effective anti-strategy against an immovably strong and entrenched Congress; the anti-Congress sentiment acquired a cutting edge because, first Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi loomed large and looked firmly ensconced in the Congress leadership slot.

Displaying acumen, Ms Gandhi was able to roll back this legacy of personal bitterness and political animosity towards her family, cobbling alliances, paving the way for the Congress’ return to power at the Centre. The UPA could not possibly have come to pass without her success in building bridges and forging relationships with those very parties which once were at the core of anti-Congressism.

Then May 2004 happened. In an inspired moment, Ms Gandhi dramatically renewed her moral authority when she renounced the prime ministerial crown. She answered magnificently and gracefully the Sushma Swarajs and the Uma Bhartis who threatened an ugly civil war in case a woman of “foreign origin” took over the government’s reins. She converted the moment into a triumph of nobility over pettiness aforethought. Unlike her courtiers, she understood her limitations and chose to work within them. Having anointed Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, she initiated the Congress into a new experiment in shared authority.

At the end of a decade, Ms Gandhi remains the most central political figure in the country. No Congress president in recent memory has exercised so total a control over the party as she does today; yet she is not able to break out of the straitjacket of leadership style she walked into 10 years ago.

Essentially, she is content to be a happy and cheerful conservative, unwilling to shake up the moribund party. She had blessed two wholesome innovations in the Indian party system: the Manmohan Singh Committee on party finances, and the Ram Niwas Mirdha Election Authority arrangement. She could not summon the courage to match the creative potential of these two initiatives; instead, she heeded the (self-service) advice of the corner-cutting, old guard not to stir up things too vigorously.

After 10 years at the helm, Ms Gandhi remains a prisoner of her own image as a benevolent patriarch, always willing to accommodate and reward the bogus sycophant and family loyalists. Unable and unwilling to take harsh decisions against non-performers, she has in effect delayed the much-needed realignment of the Congress with a changed and changing India. The Congress is constantly distracted from its obligations as the natural party of governance.

If the Congress has to continue to perform its historic role as a party of the Indian state, it cannot postpone forever a transformative change — a new organisational rhythm, inclusive and transparent functioning, and a new generation in charge of harnessing the hopes and aspirations of this young country. Having presided over the Congress with wisdom, Ms Gandhi needs to summon from within the sagacity and foresight to put slowly in place an exit strategy.