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December 26, 1997


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Power sans responsibility

It must surely be a heady feeling, to be able to wield power without discharging the responsibility that usually goes with it. In fact, most men and women end up bearing the responsibility while the power accompanying their position is often denied them and is, instead, exercised by others. The most coveted job must indeed be those jobs where there is nil responsibility and surplus power. And, to my mind, there is only one such position in the country now, held by the inhabitant of 10, Janpath, New Delhi.

Does Sonia have the time and the inclination for the rough and tumble of electoral politics? It is obvious that the widow of the former prime minister and obvious saviour of the political party nurtured by her late in-laws and her late husband does not have the stomach for it.

It is rather like a personal choice, not to like cabbage on your plate. But what Sonia seemingly likes is the prerogative to decide not only the menu, but also the recipe, the kitchen attendants, everything. All this for a meal that she has let it be known she does not intend to partake. Now do you blame the head cook for sulking in a corner?

Congress president Sitaram Kesri must surely be at his wit's end. He knows that the best thing that could happen to the party he heads is Sonia's formal takeover of his position, especially now that elections are just a couple of months away. And he has made the right noises about welcoming her, he has performed his quota of pilgrimages to the most famous postal address in the country, and the answer from the Sphinx has been a no, never mind if it was not unequivocal. It's rather like the gods never saying 'no' but only 'not now'. But Kesri does not mind. Not so long as the present belongs to him.

And what he must be unable to figure out is why does Sonia Gandhi then interfere with his running of the party? Why is she keen on ensuring that the ticket distributing authority in every state vest in her appointee? A very, very reasonable question, and I am sure Kesri is not alone in thinking these thoughts.

Now it is obvious that Sonia Gandhi tries to involve herself with the party's affairs in Bengal, an effort that quite easily came unstuck, thanks to Kesri's refusal to budge. More and more Indians would start wondering just what it is that the mysterious lady wants to do.

Just to clear the air, let me make it clear that it does not matter to me one way or the other if she decides to take over the Congress party. Much as I may empathise with many of the Bharatiya Janata Party's views, its virulent opposition to Sonia's entry into politics merely because she is Italian-born is not something I identify with.

To me she ceased being an Italian the minute she married Rajiv Gandhi and decided to make India her home. To me she is an Indian of Italian origin, and has as much as right and responsibility as any other, and this includes the right to contest elections. And as far as political naivete goes, well the nation had few negatives to say in 1984 when her husband took the plunge, and I doubt if it will object to her entry now.

In fact, the BJP's fear stems from the knowledge that she may take the battle away from them, the mass appeal of the Gandhis an imponderable in this or any election.

Given this background, it is obvious that Sitaram Kesri has done something that very few have dared to do in the history of the Indian National Congress-Indira, that is to take on the might of the Gandhis.

By spiting Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and rejecting her from the primary membership of the party for six years, Kesri has made clear his unwillingness to accept the status quo where the madam continues to meddle (Kesri's thoughts, not mine) in the party's affairs. His intention is not so much to confront her as to smoke her out.

After all, you cannot blame him for what he is doing in the absence of concrete evidence that Sonia does want to control the party; she has not once announced her intention or desire to do so; on the contrary, she has ducked the issue every time there was an occasion where she could have easily addressed the question. Given this, it is likely that what passes off as her thought of the day et al could easily emanate from those who are shielding her from the intrusions of the outside world, a world of which Kesri is also part.

It happens all the time, you see it around you everyday. Where top CEOs are shut off in their cocoons and it is their personal secretariat that passes word from above to ordinary mortals, often claiming to speak words and thoughts of the deity, but which may well come from itself. 10, Janpath is one instance, where no one knows what its inhabitant thinks on any given issue.

If it was otherwise, then a seasoned Congressmen and a devotee of the Gandhi mystique of the stature of Arjun Singh would not have said that the Congress does not turn to Sonia Gandhi before taking any and every decision.

Kesri, then, has done the right thing by scoffing at Mamata. If Sonia was really trying to involve herself in the party's affairs, then his action would provoke an unequal and opposite reaction, but that is not something the Congress president would unduly worry about at this juncture. After all, if Sonia really wants to lead the party, he cannot have much complaints, at least not in the open.

And if his strategy against Mamata evokes a few yawns from 10, Janpath, well, again he cannot have many complaints. Now it is over to Sonia.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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