Sonia Gandhi is trying to become a politician again. Will she succeed? Saroj Nagi finds out.
Has the wheel turned a full circle for the Congress and its party chief Sonia Gandhi in the last decade or so?
Is she back to square one, having to pay the price for allowing the mother dynast in her to eclipse the politician?
There is little doubt that the MP from Rae Bareli is having to start virtually from scratch to bring the party and the Nehru-Gandhi name back into the reckoning before she can gift-wrap it for her son and Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi.
The attempt to prepare Rahul to keep the legacy was evident even in the run-up to the 2004 election when senior Congress leaders would go up to her with the plea to bring Priyanka Vadra into active politics.
Ask anyone of them and they would recall how each time they raised the subject, she would silence them by saying, "How about Rahul?"
Although dismissed in the early days as a reader (of speeches) rather than a leader despite her carefully crafted image in the mould of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, particularly when it came to her sartorial sense and gait, the politician in Sonia had realised even at that time that she needed to reinvigorate the party and lay out a succession plan for it to hold it together.
At the same time, the mother in her was clear that any succession would henceforth only be dynastic with the mantle passing on to her son to prevent a repeat of the turbulence that marked the period from 1991 to 1998 when she cloistered herself and allowed non-family members like P V Narasimha Rao to lead the Congress government/party and Sitaram Kesri the organisation.
The Congress workers' call and Sonia's response over Priyanka's political role were significant in their layered meanings.
Firstly, the underlying message behind the call for Priyanka's entry into politics in the new millennium was their scepticism about Sonia's own ability to take on then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who seemed to enjoy a teflon image, specially as the Congress had in 1999 slipped to its lowest ever tally till then of 114 seats under her leadership.
Secondly, it reflected their faith that Priyanka with her strong resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi would be able to stir the masses and give the Congress a fighting chance against the National Democratic Alliance which was confident -- and complacent -- that the combination of Vajpayee's persona and the glitter of the 'India Shining' slogan would see them through the 2004 election.
Thirdly, even though they allowed themselves to get enthused by the idea that Rahul could be the next big thing in politics as a fresh-faced youth icon in a demographically younger India, they continued to yearn for Priyanka and believed that she had the political acumen and charisma to redefine the Congress.
Given this, many of them cannot still figure out why Sonia continues to keep Priyanka in the background when all they want is, even more so now, a triad of Sonia-Priyanka-Rahul in that order.
Since none of them have the courage to ask her directly about it -- and Sonia isn't known to be very communicative when it comes to the family -- all they can do is to indulge in speculation, including on Priyanka's negative response to demands for a greater role for her.
Is it because, they wonder, Sonia believes in passing on the legacy to a male member like most families would in the country? Or because Priyanka would bring with her the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra's allegedly controversial land deals with her?
Is it because the Congress president foresaw the 2014 outcome and wanted her to complement her son or be the party's trump card for 2019? Or is it part of the intrigue that characterises palace politics or something else altogether?
Priyanka: The Missing Link
Cut to 2015 and Sonia stares at the sceptre of a vanishing Congress as it faces an existential crisis perhaps even more severe than the one from which she extricated it from when she stepped out of her cloistered existence at 10 Janpath and took back the reins of the party which she had handed to others following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in the midst of the 1991 election campaign.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election wiped out the Congress in 19 states and Union territories and left it only with 44 Lok Sabha seats -- 11 short of the number required to claim the status of Leader of Opposition.
The party is now in power in five north-eastern states and four others, with only Karnataka and Kerala among the bigger ones in its kitty. With regional parties better placed to take on the BJP in their respective states, any hope of a Congress redemption seems far-fetched and a chimera as the party faces a crisis of leadership, confidence and credibility.
Not surprisingly, there are demands for Sonia and Priyanka.
Unlike the pre-2004 situation when Congressmen masked their uncertainty about Sonia's capabilities with their plea for Priyanka's entry into politics, this time, they have placed their faith in her leadership, pragmatism and capability to turn the Congress's fortunes around much like she had done when she barn-stormed the country, connected with the masses, gave the party a pro-poor tilt, jettisoned its ekla chalo policy and struck up alliances so that it could form two successive coalition governments at the Centre in 2004 and 2009.
If they continue to seek Priyanka now it is because they have virtually lost all hope in Rahul's ability to pull the party out of the morass stemming from its serial defeats in the pre and post 2014 election, never mind her own Vadra factor or her failure to replicate her success in winning Rae Bareli and Amethi seats for Sonia and Rahul in the assembly election.
Rahul's worker-voter-people disconnect, his style of functioning and his penchant to disappear from the scene at crucial times has only deepened the despair of workers, left the leaders stuttering for an explanation and intensified the yearning for Priyanka's leadership.
Rahul was missing in action from the first half of the Budget session when the crucial land acquisition bill was being taken up. Because of this, the Congress had to postpone its rally on the issue which will now be held on April 19, on the eve of the second phase of the Parliament session which will take up the land acquisition bill.
Politician vs Mother Sonia
Where does all this leave Sonia?
The politician in Sonia had, particularly in the last three years or so, taken a back seat to give space to the dynast and mother in her. For over 10 years since she brought Rahul into active politics to prepare him as her successor and perhaps as head of any Congress-led government, she had increasingly left most decisions to him, much to the glee of his youngsters and consternation of the old guard.
But the only thing he seems to have gained in time appears to be his age. Even Sonia -- despite all odds and limitations -- had taken less than a decade since her entry into active politics to become a force to reckon with in Parliament and outside as evidenced by her stinging attack on Vajpayee during the no-confidence vote in 2003 and her flexibility and willingness to transform herself, put her personal and political issues aside and walk the extra mile to solicit alliances in 2004.
Indeed, many of us saw her walk up to the residences of Lok Janata Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan and the Nationalist Congress Party's Sharad Pawar who had split from the Congress over her foreign origin. In her effort to forge a common front against the NDA she even kept the issue of the prime ministerial candidate pending till after the 2004 election.
For a leader who rarely interacted with journalists, Sonia even shed her reticence with the Fourth Estate. Those were the days when she would happily and regularly step out of her office at 24 Akbar Road to interact with the media.
But once the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance formed the government, she went back into her shell, preferring to meet only a select few so much so that not many scribes on the Congress beat can claim to have interacted with her on a one-on-one basis.
It is a trait that she seems to have passed on to her son, prompting some Congress leaders, post the 2014 debacle, to urge their bosses to be more visible and accessible to the media. The advice has gone unheeded so far.
However, unlike Sonia, Rahul has proved to be a non-starter despite his countrywide sojourn during which he ate and slept in Dalit homes and rolled up his sleeves for the cause of farmers and tribals. And in keeping with her maternal instincts, each time he failed she stepped forward to ward off any attack on his non-performance.
Witness how she offered to resign her post after the 2014 debacle to blunt any possible attack on Rahul who had led the campaign against Narendra Modi.
More recently, she tried to cover up for him for his absence when she went to Rae Bareli and Amethi and other places to commiserate with the farmers whose crops have been destroyed by unseasonal rains and who stand to get affected by the passage of the land acquisition bill.
'He will be back soon,' she assured the locals in Amethi where posters of 'Missing MP' and 'Priyanka lao' had surfaced.
There is little doubt that Rahul's leadership and style of functioning has left much to be desired. Remember how, by Rahul's own admission, she ticked him off for tearing up the ordinance that the Manmohan Singh Cabinet had cleared to shield convicted lawmakers?
His inaccessibility to his seniors only added to the growing disillusionment with him. Unlike Sonia, whose renunciation of the PM's post in 2004 enhanced her stature, his refusal to join the Manmohan Singh government or become the party leader in the Lok Sabha showed him up as a shirker of responsibilities who enjoyed power without accountability or scrutiny.
His promise to broadbase and democratise the frontal organisations remains an incomplete and controversial exercise, more so, as it ended up bringing money power into play in internal party elections.
Even if he is given the benefit of doubt that it was all coincidental, the party faced humiliating defeats in the elections in which he was the main campaigner. And yet each time he failed, he was rewarded, his rise in the organisation from general secretary to vice- president inversely proportional to the party’s downfall.
Indeed, his elevation as vice-president in 2013 came in the shadow of the assembly election defeats, but there was visible pride, indulgence and tenderness on Sonia's face when he was anointed to the post.
Only the night before she had wept in Rahul's room in motherly concern of what lay in store for him.
And now when the party is virtually in the dumps he may be elevated as president or working president in the organisational elections in September. An All India Congress Committee meeting before that is expected to set the stage for it.
Rahul's failure and absence forces Sonia to step forward but will she succeed?
Given the state she and the party is in, Sonia is finding it difficult to balance her roles as a politician and a mother dynast. She had started off as a pragmatic leader from within the Gandhi fold to restore the Congress legacy to the family and is now desperately trying to pass on the mantle to her son when the party's condition is perhaps far worse than what it was when it was in the hands of the non-Gandhis in the mid-1990s.
And to ensure that the Congress flock stays with him she painstakingly tried to turn Rahul the dynast into Rahul the politician. But having failed in that task, she now faces the daunting challenge of choosing between reviving the party and allowing her son to mentor it despite his many failures.
There is little doubt where her heart lies. But she is also aware that unless she leads from the front, whatever is left of the party may be consigned to history if the current trends hold and Rahul would be left to preside over a wasteland.
Not surprisingly, with Rahul slammed for missing in action and Priyanka increasingly seen as a missing link in the organisation by party workers, Sonia has had to step forward once more despite the fact that she is now 68 and hasn't been keeping too well.
After almost a year since the Lok Sabha results were declared in May 2014, the party once again began to figure in the political discourse when she spearheaded an opposition onslaught against the land acquisition bill both in Parliament and outside.
She led a delegation of opposition leaders to petition President Pranab Mukherjee against the proposed law. Her initiatives brought the smile back on the faces of morose and dejected Congressmen who had been desperately waiting for some sort of a smoke signal from 10 Janpath.
Intent to underline her proactive role, the Congress too was careful in announcing that the April 19 rally would be led and addressed by her and 'other senior leaders.' There was no specific mention of Rahul who is expected to be back by then after 'introspecting' on what needs to be done to revive the party -- an official but ridiculous explanation which failed to douse speculation about the real reason for his long and extended absence.
Be that as it may, his absence was never so welcome and his return never so unwanted by those who had waited for more than a year for him to take some corrective measures to give a fillip to the party and for her to prod him into taking them.
But questions continue to haunt Congress workers who are yearning for the good old days when Sonia displayed her fighting spirit to rework the party's fortunes after taking charge in 1998.
Although heartened by her actions and confident that she of all the Congress leaders may be the only one capable of taking on Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, they remain unsure whether she will actually succeed in her second coming as the saviour of the Congress.
Some of them see her attempts to revive the party or infuse some life into it as part of the exercise of saving Rahul from sniper attacks before handing over the party to him. Even Sonia must have seen how many of her so-called loyalists have in the last few weeks openly questioned the way the party has been functioning.
Kamal Nath is not the only one to question the power sharing arrangement in the party. Digvijaya Singh, once considered Rahul's mentor before the latter picked Madhusudan Mistry, too has often called for the anointment of the Amethi MP as the party chief.
The big question is whether all this is part of an orchestrated campaign or an expression of the inevitable development in the party in which Mother Sonia has often prevailed over Politician Sonia.
Images: Top: Sonia Gandhi wears a 'Japi' (a traditional hat in Assam) during a rally ahead of the general election in Lakhimpur, Assam. Photograph: Utpal Baruah/Reuters
Middle: Priyanka Gandhi campaigning for her mother in Rae Bareli
Bottom: Rahul Gandhi in Allahabad. Photograph: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters
Saroj Nagi is a Delhi based political analyst.