Home > News > Columnists > Saisuresh Sivaswamy
How did Sonia manage the near impossible?
May 14, 2004
General election 2004 will be known as the Sonia Gandhi election, just as 1999 was Vajpayee's, 1989 was V P Singh's and 1984 was Rajiv Gandhi's.
Just consider: a month ago she didn't stand an outside chance of beating the National Democratic Alliance. The election, it was felt, was a mere formality, there was no stopping the government from being voted back. No one gave Sonia's Congress a chance of actually defeating the NDA.
The tide did seem to turn with the entry of the two Gandhi scions, Rahul and Priyanka, in the campaign, but even then the consensus was that it was a case of too little too late.
So how did Sonia Gandhi manage the near impossible? Mass contact, leading from the front, and a willingness to retreat when the situation warranted it -- these were her main strengths. In contrast, the NDA/BJP had become ossified in power; the Congress, they felt, was no match for their organisational skills, and they sat back. Which could have been their biggest mistake.
A B Vajpayee may have been the BJP's biggest mascot, but he was also their liability in a sense. The trappings of office and security kept him a safe distance from the people whose vote he sought, while the Gandhis were not constrained one bit despite the continuing security threat perception to their lives. A photograph on rediff.com illustrates this best: do you recall seeing the prime minister -- never mind his popularity ratings -- or the BJP top brass, in such a situation?
Moral of the story: Bulletproof glass walls protect, yes, but they also keep you away from the people.
The Congress party's finances, let us face it, cannot have been what it was 10 years ago; after all the party has been out of power for eight years, and not many could have been willing to back it. In a high decibel election as what we saw this could have been a handicap, but Sonia Gandhi did not let it become one. She hit the road, and was neck to neck with the prime minister in distance clocked.
That the BJP was a little rattled was evident when its trench warfare specialists launched a below the belt campaign against her, but neither she nor her children responded in kind. She simply took the blows on the chin, and decided to move on.
That the BJP could launch an undignified campaign against a woman, in a country where the fondest memories still are of a woman prime minister, cannot have gone down well with the masses.
The Congress party also showed that it had learnt its lessons well. From fighting shy of alliances, the party under Sonia Gandhi showed the willingness to swallow its ego and went in for tie-ups, even if it means settling for little, like it did in Bihar where it was given just four seats by Laloo Prasad Yadav.
This was one of the things that mattered in the ultimate analysis. The BJP may have fashioned the strategy of defeating the Congress through alliances, but Sonia's Congress showed that it could learn the trick better. Thus, it tied up with the Telengana Rashtra Samithi in Andhra Pradesh and with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu -- two states that made all the difference to the NDA's hopes of coming to power.
Over the last few years the BJP had crowed that it had played the Congress strategy better. Although it was the Congress government that introduced economic reforms, it fought shy of claiming credit for it, and allowed the BJP to run away with it. The Congress indulged in soft communalism, the BJP played hard ball with it. And, the clincher for the BJP was the Congress's failure to acknowledge its shrinking base and tie up with regional parties.
And complacent that the Congress had no riposte, the BJP shifted the focus away to economic development, confident that its claims cannot be countered.
In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. It reclaimed the high ground on economic reforms, and played the alliances game better than the BJP did, as admitted a little ruefully by none other than Pramod Mahajan.
Now that she has done the unthinkable, should there be a shadow over Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister?
There is no constitutional bar on Sonia Gandhi, or any foreign-born, to become prime minister. The BJP, which makes an issue out of her foreign origin during election time, did not do much to push through a legislation barring naturalised Indians from high office when it controlled the reins of government.
The bar on Sonia, if any, was that she lacked a public mandate to become prime minister.
But this election is entirely her victory. The Congress revival, as much as it is, is Sonia Gandhi's crafting. The people's court has decided, and it is in her favour.
The verdict may not be to everyone's satisfaction, but that's the way things stack up in a democracy. In the past the people have voted in alleged murderers, the corrupt, alleged rapists etc and we have accepted the verdict; in the face of the public mandate for her, should the mere fact of birth be held against her?
In the past, various commentators, including I, have taken her apart over her many apparent deficiencies. But that was before she underwent the baptism by fire. Very few have it in them to do what she has -- if it was not for her presence at the Congress helm, the result would have been vastly different. So what else does Sonia Gandhi need to do to prove her credentials?