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August 16, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Will she, won't she

Though this is not a subject that gets written about a lot, most people with some knowledge of what is happening in Indian politics will tell you that the biggest debate within the Congress does not focus on alliances or electoral strategy. Rather who will be the party's candidate for prime minister?

The media has given us the impression that the issue has already been settled. Sonia Gandhi is the undisputed leader of the Congress and if the party forms the next government, she will be prime minister. In fact, matters are not so simple. Sonia Gandhi has never been the party's prime ministerial candidate. And even now, it is by no means clear that she will accept the prime ministership if it were offered to her.

To understand the complexities of the issue, one needs a degree of historical perspective. In 1991, shortly after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, a shell-shocked working committee went into a huddle and asked Sonia to take his place as Congress president. Polling was in progress and the Congress believed that it was certain to win an overall majority and form the next government. Whoever took Rajiv's place as party president would probably be the next prime minister. Sonia turned down the offer and wrote the working committee a letter stating that she was not interested in politics. The party then turned to P V Narasimha Rao who became Congress president. And though the party's confidence that it would win an overall majority proved to be misplaced, it did form the next government and Rao moved effortlessly from president to prime minister.

During the five years of Rao's prime ministership, he did his best to pretend he was Indira Gandhi's successor and that Rajiv Gandhi had never happened. Consequently he antagonised or alienated most Rajiv loyalists within the Congress. Worse still, he went out of his way to sabotage the inquiry into Rajiv's assassination. Inevitably, disgruntled Congressmen landed up at 10, Janpath and urged Sonia to lead some kind of revolt. Her answers was always the same; she was not in politics.

When Rao led the party to electoral defeat in 1996, the pressure increased. Even then, Sonia kept her distance. When Rao was deposed, the coup had nothing to do with 10, Janpath and he was able to install a successor of his choice. (It is another matter that Sitaram Kesri, his chosen successor, took just 48 hours to stab him in the back). Sonia refused to get involved.

She changed her mind in 1998 on the eve of the election when it seemed probable that the Congress would be wiped out. Each day, the Bharatiya Janata Party would call a press conference and produce Congress leaders who had decided to desert the party for the Sangh Parivar. Kesri proved completely unable to strike any electoral alliances and had all the campaigning chairs ma of a bandicoot on crutches. Sonia's announcement that she would campaign for the party saved the Congress from disintegration. Though the BJP went on to form the government, people stopped writing the Congress off.

Once the results were in, Kesri had to go. Congressmen were unanimous that nobody other than Sonia could lead them. Despite her oft-expressed reservations about joining politics, Sonia finally took the plunge and became Congress president.

Why did Sonia do it? Why should a woman who had tried to stop her husband from joining politics and who, legend had it, had nothing but distaste for the sleazy dealmaking of Indian politics, agree to put her life (and that of her children) on the line for the sake of the Congress party?

The explanation Sonia offered friends was simple if emotional: 'I could not walk past the pictures of my husband, his mother and grandfather if I felt that the Congress had been destroyed and that I had done nothing to try and save it.' Cynics suggested that this was too altruistic and that she wanted power for herself. Nevertheless, they had difficulty explaining why, in that case, she had refused the prime ministership in 1991 and only entered politics when the Congress was at its lowest ebb. More to the point, the country as a whole seemed to accept the characterisation of the selfless Sonia who wanted nothing for herself.

This image lasted till a few months ago, during which time she rebuilt the Congress and led it to spectacular victories in three assembly elections. Then suddenly, things began to go wrong. The turning point was when Sonia stopped trusting her own instincts and bought the working committee's line that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had to be brought down. After that, nothing has seemed to go right.

Among the mistakes made from that point on, none was as damaging as the decision to attend Subramanian Swamy's tea party for J Jayalalitha. It is hard to think of a politician who stands lower in the esteem of the educated Indian than Swamy -- even if you don't accept the allegations of his involvement in the Rajiv assassination conspiracy -- and Jayalalitha was, after all, the woman who held a press conference to say that foreigners should not be allowed to become prime minister. For Sonia to attend a party hosted by this duo seemed surprising. Inevitably, critics said that this demonstrated her hunger for power - she was prepared to tolerate Jayalalitha and Swamy because she needed them to bring down the Vajpayee government.

Sonia's perspective is that she was at the gathering for a total of eight minutes, five of which were spent answering questions from the press. She spent hardly a minute with Jayalalitha or Swamy. So why was so much being read into her attendance? But this perspective ignores that Jayalalitha used Sonia's presence to tell the press that 'a political earthquake' had occurred and that realignments were now in the offing. From an ordinary person's perspective, it was hard to ignore that Sonia and Jayalalitha had struck a deal and that the tea party was held to mark that understanding. The events surrounding the confidence motion seemed to confirm this view.

Suddenly, the middle class began to wonder if the legend of the selfless Sonia was a myth. Had she been after power all along? The truth is, of course much more complex. The Congress' behaviour in the runup to the confidence motion demonstrated stupidity and greed, but Sonia was among those who had opposed such behaviour. Outnumbered by the vehement views of her colleagues, she had abandoned her own instincts and had -- as a tragic consequence -- lost control of events. She had gone from being a leader who was trying to rebuild the Congress to becoming a woman who was manipulated by Swamy.

When things begin to go wrong, simple actions are often misconstrued. Take the fiasco of Sonia's statement at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Within the inner circle at 10, Janpath they will all tell you that Sonia wanted Manmohan Singh to be prime minister. But when she came down to face the press after she had told the president that she would not lead the Congress government, she made the mistake of assuring reporters that she had the support of 272 members of parliament. What she meant, presumably, was that the 272 who had voted against Vajpayee would support an alternative government. But there were two problems. One: she was factually wrong, the Congress did not have the support of 272. And two: she gave the impression, without meaning to, that she was speaking as putative prime minister.

After the Congress's attempt to form a government failed, it was this image that stuck in the public mind: Sonia Gandhi had tried to be prime minister and had overestimated the extent of her support. Ironically, the truth was she had never wanted to be prime minister, but who would believe her if she said so?

This image provided a useful spring-board for Sharad Pawar to launch his revolt. While Pawar found a bogus issue on which to part company with the Congress, his revolt also evoked a tremendous emotional response from Congress workers who declared that there was no alternative to Sonia Gandhi. In the process, the misconception that she wanted to become prime minister ended up enshrined within Congress mythology. Now, it wasn't that she wanted the job. It was the workers who wanted her to take the job.

But does she really want to be prime minister? There are two views in the Congress. One is that she recognises that Manmohan Singh would impress the urban middle classes much more and that, once she announces that she is not in the race, the foreigner issue is dead in the water. Moreover, she can once again go back to being the selfless Sonia who wants nothing for herself but is there to help the Congress.

There is a contrary view to the effect that even if she doesn't want the job, she is now in no position to say so. After the Pawar revolt and the emotional outpourings of her workers, she simply can't back out. Moreover, the intellectual objections to her candidacy come from the urban middle class who will vote for Vajpayee anyway, regardless of whether she steps aside or not. On the other hand, the rural voters who will make or break the Congress are much more willing to vote for a member of the dynasty than they are for a well-meaning sardarji technocrat.

My guess is that she will make her intentions clear within the next fortnight. She must know that the Congress needlessly abandoned the high moral ground six months ago in an ill-fated and ill-advised attempt to seize power. At that time, she went with the flow and ignored her own instincts.

This time around, Sonia Gandhi will make up her own mind.

Vir Sanghvi

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