When Sonia Gandhi decided to “save” the moribund, demoralized Congress party by campaigning for it in the general election earlier this year, it was popularly assumed that she was largely guided by the looming shadow of the Bofors payoff scandal. Though there was a measure of truth in this perception, it was, nonetheless, partial. Now, with the Panchmarhi parleys behind us, we can hazard the view that Ms Gandhi is not just paying lip service to her husband’s unfinished agenda – she is perhaps fated to continue it. Only from this perspective can we make sense of the party’s recent “brain-storming” meet which essentially endorsed decisions the Congress president had arrived at prior to the conclave.
Seen from a historical perspective, Rajiv Gandhi’s task was to create and heighten certain tensions in Indian society so that the old, discredited, and essentially un-Indian order could finally be phased out and a new order could take shape. That Rajiv Gandhi perceived himself as the forerunner of a new order can be gauged from his otherwise inexplicable attack on “power brokers” at the Congress centenary celebrations in Mumbai. Unfortunately, the speech was dismissed as an act of immaturity on the part of a political novice, and as the then Prime Minister lacked the skill to out-manoeuvre and marginalize established party stalwarts, the “power brokers” remained entrenched in the party and government.
Outwardly, it seemed as if the young Prime Minister had made peace with the state and party satraps, and accepted his assigned role as titular head of the party and government. Rajiv Gandhi’s accent on technology and modern management, particularly the irritating slogan of taking India into the 21st century, was similarly dismissed as the posturing of a political yuppie. Given his failure to effect truly meaningful steps towards liberalization (the whole debate in his time being reduced to a farcical playoff between Pepsi and Coke), it appeared that he remained within the Laxman rekha of traditional Congress policies.
Indeed, the popular impression of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister is of a well-meaning but inept ruler, who ultimately got bogged down in ill-conceived political compromises and cases of corruption. This is a short-sighted and barren view. Given his fervent desire to usher in a whole new age (which, in justice, is the meaning of his accent on the 21st century), it was Rajiv Gandhi’s personal destiny to serve as midwife to this process. This, by its very nature, is initially a “negative” process, because decadent structures of thought and action have to be broken down to make way for the new.
As prophet of the new order, Rajiv Gandhi de-legitimized socialism as economic policy, exposed the bankruptcy and cynicism of Congress policy towards the minorities, and took hitherto undreamed of risks in balancing demands from the majority and minority communities. Thus, it is superficially true that he failed because Congress did not benefit from the new sociopolitical landscape he ushered in. But his historic role was to inaugurate a transition, not perpetuate the status quo, and he fulfilled this task with passion.
Similarly, today, it is Ms Sonia Gandhi’s mission, perhaps even her karma, to create and maintain certain tensions in the polity, so that the new order, based on an Indian ethos, can stabilize and preserve itself. Unlike her late husband, Ms Sonia Gandhi is not a conscious or even willing agent of change. Indeed, her self-perception is of a leader who can and will return the party to power on the strength of old ideas, old equations, old associations: In short, a status quoist.
Nevertheless, the deeper truth of her ascension as Congress president is precisely to realize Rajiv Gandhi’s unfinished agenda. This means the establishment of a non-Congress order, based on the values and principles of our native genius as opposed to the marginal concepts of socialism and secularism imported from fringe Western intellectual traditions. While Rajiv Gandhi willingly became the agent of his destiny, it is Ms Sonia Gandhi’s fate to seemingly resist the forces of change, while acting to assist them.
Seen from this perspective, the events at Panchmarhi fall into place. There was, first, the refusal to address the ideological vacuum, coupled with a sharp reiteration of socialism as the guiding principle of economic policy. Variously interpreted as an attack on former finance minister Manmohan Singh and former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, the move pleased only the CPI(M). Conversely, it glued the industry-business lobby more firmly to the ruling BJP.
For a “brainstorming” session, there was remarkable reticence on foreign policy, particularly in the context of Mr Nelson Mandela’s controversial reference to Kashmir at the NAM summit, the US bombing of Taliban bases, and the debate over the CTBT. There was silence on communalism, though the party stated its commitment to secularism; and there was a new concern for environmental and population issues. Yet, despite the fact that Dr Wilfred d’Souza won the vote of confidence in the Goa Assembly at the same time, there was not even a hint about resolving inner party disputes, which definitely stuck an odd note.
Clearly, Panchmarhi was not conceived as a “brainstorming” session at all, though the assembled leaders did discuss the Congress president’s ideas as well as the papers presented. Its purpose was to endorse Ms Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Left tilt and consolidate her position as the supreme leader. Towards this end, the Congress decided to concentrate on rebuilding its mass base (especially in UP and Bihar), and forego the temptation to topple the Vajpayee Government in view of the demands and expectations its allies would have, should it be able to head a government.
Though it is too early to say if this strategy can succeed, it is already clear that there is dissatisfaction over the hierarchy under Ms Sonia Gandhi, and the prominence of defectors like Mr Arjun Singh has not gone down well with the cadre. Mr Narasimha Rao would not have taken kindly to the rubbishing and reversal of his policies, from liberalization to electoral alliances with State parties; he can be expected to reveal his hand at a more opportune moment. Similarly, Panchmarhi had nothing to offer to leaders like Mr Sharad Pawar, who have formidable mass bases in their home states, but are minimized and humiliated by non-entities close to the supreme leader.
On the larger political spectrum, Ms Sonia Gandhi has no doubt gained by aligning with the highly vocal and articulate Left, which wields formidable power in the nation’s intellectual life. But only time will tell if this is enough to offset the displeasure she has incurred by spurning would-be allies such as Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav. While the latter has held his peace in view of Congress support to his wife’s endangered Government, Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav has made no bones about his anger at the Congress’s refusal to topple the Government, and instead eye his mass base in Uttar Pradesh.
Mr. Yadav has already hit back with the threat to contest the forthcoming Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which could adversely affect the fortunes of both the Congress and Ms Sonia Gandhi. Among other potential allies, AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalitha has already changed her tune, and it is inconceivable how the Bahujan Samaj Party can maintain an indefinite silence. As of now, the conflict over the mass base of various parties, which once adversely affected the anti-Congress groups, is now slated to hit the non-BJP parties in a big way. Media hype notwithstanding, it is going to be a long haul for the Congress.
The Pioneer, 1 October 1998