There was a weak smile on Sonia Gandhi's face when election officer, Ram Niwas Mirdha announced that she had trounced rival Jitendra Prasada to become president of the Congress party.
She kept a low profile that day and did not even address a press conference. She only met reporters informally, as they stood around the barricades, for over half an hour, outside her house, at 10 Janpath, waiting for a reaction on her victory. The interaction with the media finished in a jiffy. There were scores of unanswered questions hanging in the air as she turned to go back into the security of her home.
Fiftyfour-year-old Sonia had good reason not to burst into song and dance with the deliriously happy Congressmen. She would now have to perform the miracles they wanted. Now she would have to deliver the goods. No more can she hide behind the stereotyped slogans she used during her Lok Sabha election campaign... pushing sympathy buttons in rural India.
However, outside 10 Janpath, it was celebration time. Congressmen who had nothing to celebrate for months, used the occasion to let off steam. The danced till their heads reeled. They shouted slogans till they were hoarse and burned firecrackers till they almost choked on the acrid smoke.
Admitted a cynical Congress worker: "We are behaving as if we have won the election and Soniaji is the new prime minister."
Said a reporter sarcastically: "Seems as if the swearing in is going to happen anytime now."
The celebrations ironically underlined the state of the Congress party. Clearly, there was no alternative to Sonia emerging. There were so many leaders around, all wanting to be spotted by television cameras, smiling away. They had been reduced to pygmies in India's oldest political party. Did that matter?
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit proudly held up her ballot paper for all to see and the world to know, through the newspapers and television channels, that she was the most loyal: She had voted for Soniaji.
There was a litany of servile voices all saying the same thing. An example: Ghulam Nabi Azad gushed, "The overwhelming majority that Soniaji got indicates her command over the party and the workers's faith in her leadership." Ditto from Ambika Soni.
But there were some sane voices. Only they insisted on anonymity. Said an angry Congress leader: "Ironically, Sonia Gandhi is the strongest point of the Congress party today. She is also the weakest point. Vajpayee is strong today only because Sonia is so weak. Jitendra Prasada has done a yeoman service to Sonia. He helped her establish a supremacy that never existed earlier."
No one knows this more than Sonia.
Sonia has yet not displayed any quality of leadership. She cannot blame anyone for that. She has been Congress president for 31 months. What does she have to show? She is seen as an inadequate leader and a shaky decision maker. Obviously because she got there more by default than merit. Under her leadership, the Congress logged its worst performance in a general election since Independence.
Admitted a senior Congress leader: "The voter had a Hobson's choice: Sonia or the BJP. No wonder we lost the election."
Today, to be president of the Congress party is not easy. No president has had such a tall order. It will be a tough path to tread in the next three years. The Congress has never been so dispirited, so disorganised, so rootless, so disunited and so debilitated. Sonia today heads a deeply demoralised party. Dissidence is growing and, if party insiders are to be believed, it will sooner or later take on a defiant tone.
Sonia does not inspire confidence anymore. She cannot be easily approached, even by for senior leaders. She has not displayed a sense of courage or daring on any issue and is largely now seen as a puppet in the hands of a scheming coterie. In fact, she does not seem to have any views on any subject that people can easily identify with.
State party units are in total disarray. There is little hope of any of them reviving under her leadership And though elections in five states are round the corner, the state leaders are not seeing the writing on the wall.
Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh are good examples. Admitted K Karunakaran, former Kerala chief minister, to rediff.com, "Soniaji will have to reorganise the party throughout India. She has to find a way out, as we are weak in many states today."
The Congress in most states is in a pathetic condition. They are torn with dissident activity, turf wars, demoralisation and a total lack of direction. Sonia has to work pretty hard at infusing a new surge of energy, giving a new vision to the party and teaching workers that the Congress could also play a meaningful role in Opposition.
After so many years in power, the Congress has not come to terms with sitting on the Opposition benches. And that is why it has failed as an Opposition.
Points out senior leader V N Gadgil, who was earlier the party spokesperson, "The Congress has to emerge as a real Opposition party. They must learn to oppose, expose and depose the government. We must organise strikes, morchas, rallies on issues that affect the people like price rise. Sonia Gandhi will start doing this soon. There are going to be elections in five states soon."
Sonia has now figured out that her responsibilities have increased after the party election, which was the only way to give her post some legitimacy. Points out Soni, who quit as general secretary to work full time as campaign manager for Sonia, "Congress workers showed that they have total faith in her. They do have high expectations of her and it has to be sustained."
One of the first things Sonia did was to call all the Congress chief ministers to Delhi to review their performances. It was not done before. Was it her new found confidence? Highly unlikely. It was her spin doctors at work. They wanted her to tell the chief ministers to focus on social sectors. Like scheduled castes, tribes, backward classes, minorities and women.
The idea, Soni explained, was to aggressively pay attention on these groups to win their support. In the second phase, it was likely to be agricultural labour and the farming sector. Once this was done, the spin doctors felt, it would make it easier for these huge sections of people to identify with the Congress and once again back them.
Sonia does not have lots of time. Those elections for five states are round the corner. If there is another dismal performance, her reputation as leader would be sullied further. Efforts are now building up to see that the party does not get routed.
Gadgil's recipe: "Sonia must urgently start work in four areas: She must work on the image of the party, work on the identity of the party, work on setting up an ideology and finally draw up a strategy. She will have to reorganise and reorient the party both inside and outside Parliament. The Congress Working Committee needs young people with creative minds."
What will the reconstituted CWC look like? Sonia won't tell. "Wait and see the changes," is all that she was ready to say. It will be interesting to see if she makes any drastic changes. Or will it be another geriatric set-up?
Said Karunakaran: "It is okay to get young blood in, but at the same time Sonia must take the elders into confidence. They are also important." Clearly, the older guard is uncomfortable with Madam. Will she able to usher in the new guard without upsetting the older lot?
Sonia has yet to make a great speech in Parliament. She may be leader of the Opposition, but the Opposition does not take her seriously. Or even respect her. Look at the way Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Mamta Banerjee, P Chidambaram and other leaders treat her. They do not rally around her as she has nothing to say. She has no battle to fight. She has no issues to address. In his typical style, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once asked her in Parliament what the Congress policy on the nuclear issue was. He sat down expecting an answer. What he got was silence. Sonia didn't have a clue.
"Imagine Sharad Pawar as leader of the Opposition," says a leading Congressman. "See how we treated him. All he asked was if India wanted to have an Italian prime minister. We threw him out though he was the best bet we had." Deep within, all Congressmen simmer. But when they talk to the press, it is always coated with sugar and only touches on how Soniaji will lead them back to power.
Design: Lynette Menezes
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