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Sonia's masterstroke

May 19, 2004

In a land whose heritage glorifies renunciation of all ties, it is unusual to find a politician who has learnt to say 'no.' Congress president Sonia Gandhi, by turning down the clamour from within her party to become prime minister, has joined a rare set.


A few have done this in the past. The situation in 1989 was a tad similar: V P Singh's Janata Dal, which had a pre-poll understanding with the Left parties on one side and the Bharatiya Janata Party on the other, had emerged as the largest grouping in Parliament. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress had fallen from a humongous majority in the previous Lok Sabha to become the single largest party but he wisely opted to sit out in the Opposition. The JD too had an origins issue, over V P Singh's antecedents. Party senior Chandra Shekhar had then resolved to never support an ex-Congressman for the top job. When the JD Parliamentary Party met soon after the election, the first name proposed and approved for the PM's post was not V P Singh but Devi Lal.


It was all played out to a script, but Shekhar was not aware of the climax. The Haryana strongman promptly declined, and in turn proposed Singh's name since he had led the charge against Rajiv Gandhi from the front -- to Chandra Shekhar's eternal chagrin.


The drama unfolding in the Congress party is not too dissimilar. Sonia Gandhi, having led her forces against the National Democratic Alliance, declines the offer to lead a minority government and may propose Manmohan Singh's name today. Indications so far are that she will not resile from her determination.


Yes, Sonia's move has thrown the Bharatiya Janata Party off course. While it may go around claiming credit for getting Sonia to renounce the prime ministership, the party will also have to come to terms with the fact that it has been denied a potent issue. Sonia's foreign origin has now been overshadowed by her show of supreme sacrifice, and unless the BJP moves on it will reap a bitter harvest.


For the BJP, the choice is clear. Either stick to the course charted out by outgoing prime minister A B Vajpayee, or return to its earlier shrill avatar when it raked up issues only to put them on the backburner when in power. The latter has an inbuilt law of diminishing returns while the former, despite not having paid off in the recent election, is the saner approach.


Of course, its shock defeat has skewed its thinking, and hot heads need to cool down before they can think straight. When they do, the BJP will realise that with power comes tremendous responsibility; the recent election shows that in normal times people vote not out of sentiment but over immediate concerns. Street level politics are okay so long as they highlight issues that impact the voter's life -- anything else may get you the decibel level, not the votes. The difference between the BJP's previous stint in the Opposition is it is a former ruling party now. What passed earlier will not do so anymore.


Sonia's decision impacts the Congress more than one is willing to concede -- witness the weepy appeals for her to reconsider. Congressmen are a unique lot: self-preservation is the engine that drives them, and they will mask this facet with high-falutin' principles. Save the country, save secularism, etc should all be seen for what they really are: save us Congressmen.


The panic may be natural. The Gandhi family has remained their single biggest USP, never mind the family has paid the price for it in blood. Manmohanomics may have returned to centre-stage today, but let us not forget that in the 1991-1996 era the affable Sardar's economic course correction made him enemy number one for most Congressmen. The party has embraced his reforms now, but it was under duress since the BJP was claiming all the credit for it.


P V Narasimha Rao's prime ministership was a time to bite the bullet, not to reap the fruits, so Congressmen wanted nothing to do with economic reforms. Today, when the world is noticing India for its economic strength, the reforms have become attractive.


But the family is what they wanted foremost, everything else flowed from it. And till recently, they had got their ideal world: Sonia and reforms.


Sonia's prescription, bitter as it may seem, is the best that can happen to them, but so blinded are they by self-preservation they are unable to see it. Sonia Gandhi's prime ministership is a potent issue, it is akin to the BJP rediscovering the Babri Masjid all over again. On one hand her move defangs the Sangh Parivar, and on the other it returns the Congress to its roots -- a time when the party presidency and the prime ministership rested in different individuals, as it must in a true democracy, before a paranoid Indira Gandhi altered the script. It is a strange situation: Congressmen are being offered internal democracy but they are screaming for autocracy.


Her allies, who are blithely supporting the government, may seem enthusiastic over Sonia's move but the biggest impact of her decision will be on them.


Gandhi has turned down the prime ministership, not sworn off the party presidency. Neither she nor her children have offered to get out of politics: they will instead focus on strengthening the organisation, returning it to its pre-eminent position in states where it has lost out over the last 15 years.


And who has the Congress party lost out to? The BJP, yes, but in state across state it is also a combination of regional forces that have managed to net the Congress' vote bank as it disintegrated. To revive the party, Sonia Gandhi will have to neutralise the very allies that are supporting her government today.


Uttar Pradesh Congressmen, for instance, believe the Samajwadi Party is a bigger threat to them than the BJP. Ditto the CPI-M in West Bengal. Ditto the RJD in Bihar. The BJP's vote bank may have bagged some of the Congress' traditional vote, but the bulk of it went to the smaller parties.


The regional parties are aware of the risk to their existence if the Congress were to revive. In a lot of ways, this is a reprise of 1996-1998. Then the Congress supported a conglomeration of parties that were chipping away at its base to keep out the BJP; today it is the reverse.


In 1996 it had taken the Congress two years to realise it was committing political hara-kiri; how long will it now take for the regional parties to do so?


When they do, unlike then the allies will now find a fighting fit Congress.


This, is the crux of Sonia's masterstroke.


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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