When on Saturday, Sonia Gandhi was appointed as the interim president of the Congress at a meeting of the party’s working committee, after Rahul Gandhi refused pleas by partymen to take back his resignation, everybody to the right of centre laughed. Even the media, considered by the right to have a soft corner for all anti-BJP forces, wrote unsparing editorials on the resumption of the ‘bygone’ era in the oldest Indian political party. While some criticism is due for the party’s sorry state of affairs in which it cannot countenance a new approach, Sonia Gandhi is a formidable contender for power, which her son could never be, and can never be even in the future.
Before returning as the supreme authority of the Congress two months after the party suffered a massive drubbing in the Lok Sabha election under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, the two meetings of the CWC to find a successor of her son was bound to be a farce as it would have gone without many leaders saying it openly that the Dynasty is indispensable for the party in its present condition. This was evident since the time of PV Narasimha Rao whose bid to divert public attention from a plethora of allegations of corruption against his regime by implicating his own colleagues had led to the factions of ND Tiwari, Madhavrao Scindia, GK Moopanar and P Chidambaram breaking away from the Congress. Some day in the near future, the AICC may elect a regular president, but that man or woman would be hardly anything beyond a puppet whose strings will be pulled from 10 Janpath.
When PTI reported that “the party’s highest decision-making body banked on the experience and tested leadership of Sonia Gandhi, to lead it in what the CWC described as ‘trying times'”, it was hardly a pliable news agency reporting. It is not too far back in the past when Sonia Gandhi led from the front a dispensation that looked as invincible as it was downright corrupt and, to share AK Antony’s assessment, also anti-Hindu.
Sonia Gandhi knew when to look the undisputed leader of the Congress that she indeed was, and when to let the poor Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister, take the blame. At crucial junctures where the supreme leader would be needed the most, she would just vanish to some undisclosed destination for medical treatment. This happened during the peak of the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev-led movements. In fact, the assessment of a pro-Congress journalist like Vir Sanghvi was that Singh had invited the end of his leadership by claiming credit for the 2009 victory of the UPA, which he thought was a result of his adamant stand on the India-US civilian nuclear deal more than Sonia Gandhi’s leadership.
As Sonia Gandhi returns as the party president about 20 months since making way for son Rahul Gandhi in December 2017, she is expected to lead the party as she did for almost 19 years before she quit the post citing health reasons. It was a long period when she seized power from an invincible-looking Atal Bihari Vajpayee, notwithstanding the fact that the Congress had won a mere six seats more than the BJP in 2004. It was a period when LK Advani failed not only to lead the BJP back to power in 2009 but also to inspire the crowds to turn up in large numbers at his rallies, following which an Anna Hazare was flown in from Maharashtra’s Ralegan Siddhi for an anti-corruption movement to offer a launchpad for a wily activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal.
Sonia Gandhi failed finally when Narendra Modi emerged from Gujarat to own the national stage in the middle of 2013. Modi, along with the Congress matriarch’s flailing health, is the difference between then and now. However, there is an aspect where she remains a power to reckon with. Unlike her son, she is good at forging alliances with other anti-BJP parties.
Unlike her son again, Sonia Gandhi does not speak incoherently, is not associated with gaffes and bloopers and she is more fastidious than Prime Minister Modi in picking journalists for interviews. Where she could prove better than Modi is media management. While a larger section of the mainstream media in India is at her beck and call, even the media in the West eats out of her hand, given their common agenda of furthering the Christian cause in this part of the world.
To her aid will come thousands of NGOs for whom she had once been a benefactor. On the ground, this parallel government that they ran, led by the unconstitutional National Advisory Council, will rear their heads again. Here, Home Minister Amit Shah will realise the work his predecessor Rajnath Singh had left for him to finish. To corner these extensions of foreign forces, the weapon of the law against FCRA violation proves inadequate. The current administration needs to develop a mechanism to deal with their rule by proxy in this country: They field candidates in vantage positions — by way of sponsoring election candidates and placing their foot soldiers in advisory positions in provincial administrations. They circumvent the regime that disallows NGOs from participating in elections thus.
The going will not be smooth for Sonia Gandhi yet. A more significant change since her act of demitting the office of Congress president is the way India has altered its political preference. The anti-Hindu agenda, which had given shape to a despicable Prevention of Communal Violence Bill where the majority was perforce deemed as the assailant, will no longer work. Equally, ultra-socialism of the kind that gave India a leaky and flawed MGNREGA, egged on by the 60 communist MPs whose support was crucial for the survival of UPA 1, will fail. Gandhism of the Congress will flounder as much as an anti-business offer like retrospective taxation. For Modi now occupies all these spaces while delivering with the rob-Paul-to-pay-Peter model better due to the stop in transmission leaks.
While the CWC may say, “Rahul Gandhi gave a new sense of aggression and modernity to the party organisation and opened up numerous opportunities to the younger generation,” the world knows what a damp squib he has been since his debut 15 years ago, leading the party to a defeat in any state where he was in charge of the Congress campaign. When the younger generation appeared to have gained an upper hand in organisational affairs, they botched up social media campaigns, with desperate claims like every progress in the field of science owes to Jawaharlal Nehru, as much as on-ground activism, pushing an unsure Rahul Gandhi to a fancy-dress contest of looking more Hindu than the products of the Sangh Parivar.
As experienced in the 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi, the younger lot in the Congress always fails to unseat their previous generation. None of the things that Rajiv Gandhi had flagged as an odd working style of the party could be replaced in the four more years for which the son of Indira Gandhi ruled as the prime minister after his “inspiring speech” (words of the media that year) at the AICC damning the power brokers in his organisation in 1985. Today’s youth have a worse sense of history in spite of this being the age of information. They tried it again. They failed once more.
But can the elderly Congressmen oar the sinking boat ashore? The challenge before Sonia Gandhi is to hit upon new ideas. Simultaneously with the CWC decision to reinstate her came the hackneyed condemnation of the government’s act of turning Article 370 — and, by extension, Article 35A — dysfunctional. Bad idea! The new India hates this ‘idea of India’ (a coinage by the pseudo-liberal to advocate status quo).
As for the remote chance of an alternative to the principal family surfacing as the topmost leader of the Congress one day in the future, that may happen only if the Dynasty is in a state of limbo as it was following the dreadful incident of 21 May 1991. If or when that happens, the leader cannot repeat the mistake of Rao. Until that chapter unfolds in the future, those who are exulting with the Hollywood analogy may recall that the Mummy had returned with more ferocity.