Astride a high horse, straddling the low moral ground, Sonia Gandhi has achieved the grail of tin-pot tyrants. As the sun sets today, she will have elected a new party. Not yet a new people. But not a bad beginning.
So where will she go from here? The wonderful thing about Sonia is that she is consistent about the ends she seeks and the means she adopts to secure them. The ends are always ambitious, the means ever dubious. Tracing the trajectory of her brief public career, begun with Rajiv’s death in May 1991, we can make informed guesses about her future plans, provided we shun the assistance of her spin-doctors, and look at events as they actually were.
In her first brush with contemporary politics, we are told Sonia shunned power – handed on a platter by a slavish CWC – in the wake of Rajiv’s assassination. Few have questioned the merits of this claim, partly because the charade ended quickly and P.V. Narasimha Rao became Congress president, and partly because Rajiv’s brutal death made it seem churlish to attack his widow’s alleged reticence. But the truth is otherwise, and the time has come to face facts.
In the summer of 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was leading the Congress party to defeat when he met a tragic end. The then Election Commissioner, T.N. Seshan, tilted the scales by rescheduling the second leg of the polls and enabling Congress to rake in sympathy votes. Yet it did not get a majority. So, despite the offer of party leadership, Sonia was not in a position to form the government. This is the truth behind her refusal. Narasimha Rao then led a minority government with enlightened support from the BJP, which was hardly going to offer the Signora the same courtesy.
Those who recall the inelegant forgery of Sonia’s letter to Narasimha Rao will sense her desperation to maintain a hold over the party, and secure a space in public life. The operation was launched immediately after the assassination. Senior party leaders were shocked to find themselves unwelcome when foreign dignitaries arrived. The photo opportunities were exclusively reserved for the Signora, and the spin-doctors piously intoned about her ‘personal equation’ with various world leaders.
Party men were sized up in terms of her likes and dislikes. N.D. Tiwari, accused of personal ambition, was roughed up at the funeral, the way Sitaram Kesri and others were recently manhandled at the CWC. Cash-rich and prestigious state trusts in the name of family members were briskly taken over, and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation ensconced in the party’s new building. Party men were encouraged to come and ventilate grievances with Narasimha Rao, and whenever it was felt that the numbers were lagging, major domo Vincent George would inform bemused members that their (unsolicited) appointment with ‘madam’ had been fixed for a particular date and hour.
Simply put, Sonia sought a foothold on the mountain of power. Many will recall the questionable manner in which she thrust herself in the public eye, hogging the front row at state functions, disdaining protocol in her quest for legitimacy as part of the political elite. The BJP was considerably disconcerted to find her muscling her way next to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the early days of his regime, though the party has not revealed the strategy it employed to get her out of the frame.
It is creditable that Sonia could build an artificial aura around her persona on the basis of a professed aversion to politics, though facts spoke otherwise. Much of this was possible because the English-language press extended fulsome support to her efforts to undermine the Narasimha Rao regime. Recall the hype over the non-crisis that resulted in formation of the Congress-Tiwari, the fury that Rao was not sensitive to her ‘legitimate concerns’ (a euphemism for scuttling the Bofors probe), and you will realize how tenaciously she guarded her political interests.
There is scarcely anything ‘Indian’ about this style of functioning. Nor are there Indian precedents for the manner in which Sitaram Kesri was ousted from party presidentship. Yet, throughout the open conspiracy preceding the fall of the Vajpayee regime to the recent split, she has received obsequious loyalty from sections of the media. Some have made a callow attempt to gloss over her foreign origins by allusions to her birth in a foreign land, when the truth is that she was born to foreign parents who were followers of the fascist dictator, Il Duce Benito Mussolini. There is a similar reluctance to accept the fact that her late and reluctant assumption of Indian citizenship was dictated by political expediency, and does not overrule the old Roman law, which grants her and her descendants eternal citizenship of Italy. Hence her reluctance to enlighten the party and country on the dual citizenship issue, which involves more than surrendering her Italian passport.
It is being asked why the media is reviving the anti-nationalism of our Plassey days, and why Pawar & Co. acted the way they did at this juncture. My answer to the first question is that we are truly plagued by a disease Rahul Bajaj calls the ‘fear of greatness.’ A look at the media hostility to our new nuclear capability – which has brought the entire range of Pakistan’s covert nuclear and military acquisitions into the open – should suffice to illustrate this point.
The answer to the second question is that Sonia’s naked ambition to be Prime Minister with the help of an obliging President who gave her nearly a week to force herself upon a reluctant opposition, made them realize what they were up against. Not surprisingly, when the trio first posed their challenge to her Prime Ministerial aspirations, Sonia responded by brushing them aside and behaving as if their remarks had never been made. This prompted publication of the famous letter, and the rest is history.
Given her track record, it is psychologically impossible for Sonia to submit her citizenship status to public scrutiny. Her backdated resignation was calculated to ensure the trio’s expulsion. Her subsequent insistence on penalizing CWC members who did not defend her adequately, and re-fashioning a totally subservient party at an emergency AICC session, is in line with her pathological self-obsession.
The pertinent issue as Sonia Gandhi resumes charge of a repentant Congress, de facto or de jure, is whether she can take it to fulsome victory a la Indira Gandhi. I have some brief observations. First, Indira was no dumb belle. Nehru had made her Congress president in his lifetime; in this capacity she had the first elected communist government in Kerala illegitimately dismissed. Her low profile in Shastri’s tenure may have misled the Syndicate, but she was a shrewd political animal.
Second, with Pawar’s exit, there is a question mark on Congress’ poll alliances. There is deafening silence from Jayalalitha and Mayawati, while Laloo Yadav, having uttered polite nothings, is unwilling to give up Mulayam. Of course, it is still early days. Yet, looking back at her recent attempt to form the government, one cannot resist the impression that as she fraternized with Subramaniam Swamy, Chandra Shekhar, Mulayam Singh, Jayalalitha, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, and desperately placed herself under Surjeet’s tutelage, she appeared of equal stature to them. That is why Mulayam could stand his ground and rebuff her. Her diminutive mother-in-law always stood apart.
The Pioneer, 25 May 1999