The electorate’s unequivocal snub to Ms Sonia Gandhi’s prime ministerial ambitions, witnessed in the sharp decline in the Congress’s all-India tally, is entirely along expected lines, notwithstanding the surprise this seems to have caused amongst dedicated secularists. Reality proved so far from the Congress’s self-prognosis that its claim to be invited to form the Government on grounds of being (expectedly) the single largest party proved comical.
The secular Cassandras, however, have recovered sufficiently to make excuses for the Congress and dire predictions for the BJP-led coalition. It has become fashionable to claim that the 13th Lok Sabha is a virtual replay of the 12th Lok Sabha, barring the fact that the BJP has more allies to contend with even though it has a more comfortable majority. But, as the ancients say, the river is never the same, and so it is with the BJP. Despite the UP debacle, it has significantly enlarged its all-India presence and acceptability.
For the Congress, however, there are disturbing dissimilarities between this Lok Sabha and the previous one. Most obvious, and painful, is the fact that the combined charisma of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi (with the Vadras thrown in “free”) has taken the party from stagnation in 1998 (141 seats) to steep decline in 1999 (112 seats). It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the dynasty’s divine-right-to-rule plea has repelled the voters. Ms Sonia Gandhi thus enters Parliament minus the air of invincibility she had assumed at Talkatora Stadium some months ago.
But her woes have only begun. With the combined strength of her alliance falling below the Congress’s individual tally in the previous House, both Ms Jayalalitha and Mr Laloo Yadav have held her responsible for the fiasco and virtually called off the arrangement. Congress is thus extremely isolated. In future it will find it tougher to forge opposition unity to topple the Government (as in April last), as Ms Sonia Gandhi’s leadership is now even less acceptable to parties across the spectrum.
And in this particular respect, I envisage even greater difficulties for Ms Priyanka Gandhi, who is likely to enter Parliament via Amethi, provided she can placate her husband’s fledgling political ambitions.
It will be argued that despite a fall in seat share, the Congress has vastly improved its vote share. A certain polarisation of minority votes has undoubtedly enhanced its vote tally, but as I stated in my previous article (August 31), and politicians across party lines have since conceded in television soundbites, this was the election of the Hindu vole. As Ms Sonia Gandhi does not empathise with Hindu aspirations, Hindu sentiment inevitably inclined towards the BJP. The contention that the BJP lost vote share is specious since it contested about 50-odd seats less than in 1998, to accommodate a larger alliance.
What is most distressing from Ms Sonia Gandhi’s point of view is the timing of her parliamentary debut. The dream of entering the House as Prime Minister died young, while her present politically isolated state coincides with the expected release of the final set of documents relating to the Bofors kickback scandal from the Swiss courts. As a public servant, she will be personally and politically accountable if any member of her family (the late Rajiv Gandhi, herself or her children) is found to be beneficiary of that handsome payoff. Fate has cruelly punished her coup d’etat against Sitaram Kesri.
Having twice staked claim to the Prime Minister’s office (the President gave her two chances in April), contested from two constituencies, and campaigned throughout the country exclusively with her children, Ms Sonia Gandhi cannot claim the immunity of a non-combatant, non-political, reclusive widow. The days when she could pretend innocence and claim privilege while waging a fearsome guerrilla war against the Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral regimes respectively, are gone. Today, as an armed and licensed gladiator, she will have to face her opponents in the public arena. Of course, given her temperamental contempt for transparency, she will chafe at such a situation. But for those concerned with propriety in public life, this is a victory.
Having said all this, one is constrained to add that Ms Sonia Gandhi’s problems are only beginning. The bovine outfit she created at Talkatora is in deep distress over her unspectacular performance and has begun to fret at the lack of inner party democracy (a situation tolerated only in lieu of the loaves and fishes of office). This has caused the Signora to make her second blunder – canceling the Congress Working Committee meeting. Her first mistake, of course, was her failure to face the Press and public after the people’s verdict, which makes her the only leader to refuse to own responsibility for poor performance. Contrast this with the gamely manner in which Ms Sushma Swaraj stood before the television cameras through successive rounds of counting at Bellary, and explained her absolutely unexpected defeat, and you will see what I can only call a poverty of leadership.
Since this is obviously not the way to encourage introspection or inner party democracy, cancellation of the CWC must be viewed as a manifestation of Ms Sonia Gandhi’s fear of being challenged and/or held accountable for the rout. Her spin-doctors and courtiers have, meanwhile, been overactive, insisting that she should not be held responsible for the defeat, shifting the onus to all other levels of organisational authority, and generally silencing dissent through backstage management.
As this is a subject over which Congress has complete mastery (and BJP would do well to take a few lessons here), it is easy to envisage Ms Sonia Gandhi’s “unanimous” election as chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party. This will keep her position as supreme leader intact while leaving the real job of leader of opposition in both houses to more capable leaders (though the tussle for these posts could further aggravate the crisis in the party). Similarly, the CWC, when it does finally meet, can be expected to gloss over the reasons for the party’s poor showing.
To my mind, this evasion of issues will not help in the long run, as neither the Congress nor Ms Sonia Gandhi will learn the relevant lessons. I therefore envisage another split, as and when some leader of standing needs to resist encroachment on his self-respect, as was the case with Mr Sharad Pawar. And if the two Congress groups do manage to get together to form the Government in Maharashtra, Mr Pawar will have proved that dissent the only way to get respect from Congress.
Finally, given the sharp communal angle she gave her campaign, Ms Sonia Gandhi should know she will be closely watched during Pope John Paul-II’s forthcoming visit to the country. The first time the Pontiff called, during Indira Gandhi’s regime, I recall her covering her head with a white lace mantilla for the official reception.
In his second visit, during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership, in a private meeting, she used her sari pallu. Of course, there were no such niceties when she went to Tirupati and, more recently, when meeting a group of senior Muslim clerics. When she accuses the BJP of “communalism”, she should explain her notion of equal respect to all faiths. And while she is at it, she might care to articulate her position on the increasingly contentious issue of conversions – whether the freedom to propagate one’s faith can be taken to mean the right to convert, particularly in the face of strenuous resistance from the victims of this invasion.
The Pioneer, 12 October 1999