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December 31, 1997


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Sonia's decision is not an unmitigated blessing for the Congress

It's not very often that a columnist gets the satisfaction of events working out along the lines he has penned. Thus, it is with not a little anticipation that I learnt of Sonia Gandhi's decision to don battle colours for the Congress, for only last week I had said that Sitaram Kesri was prodding her through Mamata Banerjee's expulsion.

Now that she has broken her self-imposed silence on what she intends to do for the party, the question that arises is the impact her decision will have on the Congress fortunes. The Bharatiya Janata Party, so far the cock of the walk, has reacted in the manner expected of someone who has been denied what he has been led to believe is his.

But perhaps both the Congress's euphoria and the BJP's dismay over the former prime minister's widow are misplaced.

Sonia's decision, significant as it is, may not turn out an unmitigated blessing for the party. The charisma which the Congress will gain may well be offset by the resentment at the perpetuation of the dynasty syndrome.

Apart from this reaction on the electorate's part, her decision only to campaign -- the more important question for her candidature for the prime ministership being kept in limbo for the time being -- is something that could internally damage the party structure. Granted, to paraphrase D K Borooah's sycophantic words, 'Indira is the Congress and the Congress is Indira', the name has extended to include all and every future descendent even by marriage.

For Congressmen, used to the spectacle of one widow leading the party to victory at the hustings, there is nothing unusual about another goongi gudia taking charge of the party's strategy, even if she has neither evinced any significant interest in politics nor taken part in any brainstorming within the party's echelons.

Kesri, obviously, must be an unhappy man though for the record he has expressed his relief at Sonia's decision. The only joy for him would be if the party were to fare badly despite a Gandhi leading it -- then he could point fingers elsewhere when it is time to apportion blame.

By all accounts, it is going to be an unusual election, the results of which are quite impossible to foresee, the mood of the electorate yet to crystallise. And the repossession of the Congress by the dynasty has only added to the piquancy, not lessened it in anyway, even if Congressmen believe they have the winning card.

What impact Sonia's decision will have on polling will be known only after the ballot boxes are opened and the votes counted. But for the present the BJP has been forced on the backfoot. With her faxed statements from 10, Janpath, she has put paid to the BJP's dreams of luring more Congressmen and cobbling together an anti-Congress front assisted by renegades from that party who were legion before December 29.

In fact, besides staunching the flow of rebels to the saffron brigade, it should not surprise anybody if the turncoats now turn heels towards 24, Akbar Road, thanks to Sonia. This is the fallout of her decision in the immediate future. And what it will mean in the long run is the more interesting question.

Her decision could cut both ways: it could boost the morale of the down-and--out Congressmen, or it could alienate other parties that were hitherto soft on the Congress for the simple reason that Sonia lends herself to a soft, although high-profile, target. It should not be difficult for willing hands to transfer the sins of her dead husband to her -- for, only the naive will believe that the Sonia factor will have no bearing at all on the election.

It's obvious that the lady herself does not believe that she will set the Ganga. Yamuna, Kaveri and the Narmada on fire. If she did, her decision will not cover merely electioneering but would have included the post-election scenario also.

And by any means, that is where she has played her master stroke. If the party's fortunes suffer, or do not improve despite her leading the battle, she can always take refuge behind the fact that she could not blamed for the fiasco, didn't she after all come out and campaign? Kesri, if he does not take quick evasive action, is all set to become the sacrificial lamb.

But the more interesting scenario would be if the public were to endorse her decision, for she then becomes the power behind the throne even if she does not agree to head the Congress Parliamentary Party. And, it will not be easy to turn down the demands from party units that she don the mantle for which she entered the fray. Again, Kesri will find himself on a losing wicket. His dream of ruling the nation, in the pursuit of which he unhesitatingly brought down two governments in seven months, would once again be dashed.

Through all this, spare a thought for the most maligned prime minister of India, P V Narasimha Rao. Through turbulent times he led the nation for five years, transferring his government from a minority to a majority and introducing far-reaching economic reforms that a prime minister 30 years younger could not. His party may disown him today, but he managed to lead its electoral campaign in 1996, although in a lacklustre manner, without any help from 10, Janpath, Who knows, when the votes are counted, maybe he will still have the last laugh.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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