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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

Sonia Gandhi@10: A mixed bag

March 18, 2008

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It is time to take stock of where the Congress is heading under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi [Images] now that she has completed ten years as party president.

When she took over in 1998, removing Sitaram Kesri, the party was eroding at the edges with many prominent leaders like the late P R Kumaramangalam quitting to join the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Her decision to takeover stemmed the outflow, and she has kept the party intact. Having the credentials of a Nehru-Gandhi family link, and with Congress leaders unwilling to accept each other in the leadership role, she became the unifying force in the party. Her acceptance in the party and in the country increased when the Congress emerged victorious in 2004 general election, and she declined the prime ministership.

She was also instrumental in helping the Congress, used to ruling on its own, transit to coalition governance. She crafted alliances in early 2004 in the wake of the Congress defeats in the Hindi heartland, and that was a single act responsible for the Congress coming to power after three successive defeats in 1996, 1998, 1999.

When Sonia took over, there was speculation whether she would be able to forge cross party equations, as the functioning of Indian politics has depended a great deal on personal relationships across the political divide. Ten years down the line, she is the most acceptable leader in the UPA, with personal equations with Lalu Yadav, M Karunanidhi, Sitaram Yechury and is comfortable picking up the phone and talking to Mayawati or to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She could well emerge as the most credible name for heading a coalition next time, were such a situation to emerge.

Even though Congress leaders chafe against the unrelenting pressures from the Left parties on a host of issues, she has been reluctant to part company. She has helped to manage the relationship with them, knowing the importance of a left of centre image in a poor country like India. The UPA has had to contend with differences on policy and ideology, while Vajpayee was buffeted around by the whims of 'Samata, Mamata, Jayalalitha'.

Most important, it is she who has tried, time and again, to shift the focus of the government towards the 'aam admi' -- the latest being the Rs 60,000 crore loan wavier for farmers. The UPA government will be remembered for the National Employment Guarantee Act and the Right of Information Act and Sonia had a decisive role in persuading an initially reluctant trio, comprising the prime minister, finance minister and deputy chairman of the planning commission to go ahead with it.

Unfortunately, the role of the National Advisory Council, which could have emerged as an institutionalised political think tank giving government direction, and a window to engage the sub-strands of civil society, was cut short with Sonia's resignation but it needs to be revived. It could be her distinctive contribution to institution building.

Sonia Gandhi's major failure has been on the party front. Though the Congress managed to form the government in 2004, it was only with 145 MPs, and was lucky that the BJP was seven seats short and its NDA allies had fared poorly.

The Congress is hardly a major player in the country's four large states -- UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal -- which account for 200 seats. If anything, the situation has deteriorated in these states.

There is a state of drift in the party. After months of hype about a 'revamp', there is none in the offing. There is no cabinet reshuffle to induct younger faces because there is a reluctance to remove the deadwood. An 88-year-old is given a Rajya Sabha nomination when the party is supposed to be undergoing a generational change. There is little political logic to what is happening.

The Pradesh Congress Committees have not been constituted in a large number of states, even some that will go to the polls in a few months. Posts have lain vacant for months. Other parties have managed to beat back incumbency, be it the CPI-M in West Bengal and Tripura or the BJP in Gujarat or the Nagaland Peoples Front in Nagaland. But not so the Congress.

One of the problems is that Sonia's decision making base has shrunk. Soon after she took over, she would hold regular meetings during Parliament sessions with 30-35 senior leader brainstorming to evolve the party's stand on a host of issues. Today her decision making is centralized, involving a handful of people who surround her. Access to her is also much more controlled. The top is a lonely position and without adequate feedback, a leader can very quickly get isolated without even knowing it.

Rahul Gandhi [Images] has referred to the 'dalali' in the party, which is an open secret. This is not only a question of money being made. It is also about the kind of lifestyles Congressmen have got used to. The lavish weddings of politicians' sons and daughters, running into crores, is now the norm. It is hardly surprising that Congress leaders are increasingly getting cut off from the `aam admi'. Sonia Gandhi has either been reluctant to draw the line for her party men and women, which has led to a free for all situation, or is just helpless.

And yet she is the undisputed leader of the Congress with no challenge to her leadership, wielding unquestioned power in the party and the government. Despite her power and authority, she is not able to revive the Congress. It shows how morally exhausted the party is. The dynastic principle can only bail it out up to a point of it being a holding operation, which is what it has been under her stewardship. Sonia Gandhi will have to involve people at a wide level, the dynamic, the dispossessed and the dissenting, to rejuvenate the party.

She came into active politics to rebuild the Congress party, and will be judged by history on her success or failure to do this.


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