Sonia Gandhi’s greatest gift to Congress cadre might be the belief that they can never come to power on their own
Now that the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha election is done and Rahul Gandhi has been anointed its ‘moral victor’, and certain news channels are done airing their fawning pieces on Sonia Gandhi, it is about time we engaged in a dispassionate analysis of her career as Congress President - a position that she occupied for a whopping just under twenty years.
Some commentators have given Sonia credit for having steered the party away from its ‘Hindu’ image-something that had been a given with India’s Grand Old Party for the first four decades India’s Independence prior to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. As a matter of fact, if someone deserves to cop the blame for setting in motion the process that has culminated in the Congress party being reduced to its lowest ever tally of 44 (Now 46 seats in the Lok Sabha), it is Ms Gandhi.
In order to understand how things came to such a pass, we must go back to 1997. It was then that the momentous and in hindsight disastrous decision of making strategic coalitions with what was termed by some Congressmen and women as ‘casteist’ parties, especially in the Hindi-speaking belt, was taken. As has been described in a previous post by this author, this has led to the Congress having to ally with parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal that have earned their political spurs by cannibalising the Congress party’s vote in the two bigger states – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – of the country.
Sonia apologists tell us that her finest hour was in the 2004 general election, when she led the Congress-led-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to a stunning ‘victory’ over the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led-National Democratic Alliance (NDA). A closer examination of the election results would indeed put such assertions to rest. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the seats won by the Congress party came from states such as Andhra Pradesh (29), Haryana and Assam (9 each) and Maharashtra (13). The Congress party’s individual tally stood at a fairly pedestrian 145 seats (Moral victory and defeat anyone?). Having said that the party performed quite badly in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and for that matter even Gujarat (Although here the party did win 12 out of 26 seats).
The Congress party had leveraged its strength smartly in individual states by allying with dominant regional forces. In undivided Andhra Pradesh, it allied with K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi while in Tamil Nadu it allied with an ascendant Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Its performance in Bihar was also boosted by an alliance with the redoubtable Lalu Prasad Yadav. It is true that she was then offered the Prime Ministership on a platter before she rejected it. However, historians of the future would judge Ms Gandhi on what her tenure as the Congress President and UPA chairperson was like. She would also be compared to someone like Amit Shah who has succeeded in ensuring that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s geographical imprint is almost as humongous as that of the Congress in its salad days. Sonia, on the other hand, spent the next seven to eight years before the wheels of the UPA government truly came off, doing primarily two things:
Instead of ensuring that the Congress party regained its position as the pre-eminent political party of Uttar Pradesh-technically still the home-state of the Gandhi-Nehru family, the way Amit Shah did in Gujarat, she spent the next three years building a ‘rapport’ with the likes of Mayawati and Mulayam and playing one against the other.
In the process, all three, including the Congress were weakened, so considerably that when the Modi juggernaut rolled into town in 2014 and then again in 2017, all three were simply blown away. Contrast this with the manner in which the incumbent President of the BJP has been replicating the tactics and methods employed by the party in winning elections in the state of Gujarat throughout the country. To take another illustrative example, Sonia singlehandedly destroyed the party in Andhra Pradesh.
Knowing full well that it was not going to win a third consecutive term in a state that had remained the party’s bastion in the noughties, she put her stamp on the decision to bifurcate the state. The net result was that in Telangana, the TRS which claimed credit for the partition of the state reaped the political harvest and stormed to power in 2014, while in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress party was rendered irrelevant for a generation as the two parties that had opposed the partition, i.e. the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu (YSR) Congress Party and the Telugu Desam Party vied for pole position. The latter in alliance with the BJP came to power in the state. So much for Sonia’s political nous. Even to the most casual observer of politics, it was not difficult to predict the aforementioned scenario. One wonders why ‘Madam’ as her supporters called her, failed to predict the same.
The second and most lasting damage to the legacy of India’s grand old party was to fill its ranks and those of the extra-constitutional National Advisory Council with ‘jholawallahs’ who had no experience in or inclination towards mass politics at all. A few politically disastrous decisions, in hindsight, including an affidavit before the Supreme Court stating on behalf of the Union Government that Lord Rama never existed, were also filed. It was, presumably, also at the behest of such advisers that even the otherwise sensible Manmohan Singh had to make a statement to the effect that Muslims had the first right over the country’s natural resources. Lately though, normal service seems to have resumed as Rahul Gandhi is proudly proclaiming to all who still care to listen to him, that he is a ‘janeudhari’ Hindu. However, the jury is still out on whether he would be able to offset the damage done during his mother’s era.
We are constantly told by the old media that Sonia’s greatest achievement, along with that of Rahul, was to lead the Congress party to a grand national total of 209 seats in 2009. Impressive though the figure may be, by the less-than-lofty standards that the party has come to expect of itself, what the Congress party did afterwards is not only symptomatic but also explains the reason for the party’s decline. In 1989, the same Congress party won almost the same number of seats but decided to not stake a claim to form the government, for it felt confident in its ability to muster the required number of seats in the next election which would surely be held within a couple of years. Such was the confidence of the stalwarts of the party those days and in 1991, that they were almost vindicated as the party stopped around 20 seats short of an outright majority.
On the other hand, in 2009, the party no longer had any such belief in itself. The Congress rank and file and leadership rejoiced at this decidedly middling tally (given that the party at that time was the only one with an organisation that subsisted in every nook and cranny of every village in the country). A ‘coalition’ government with partners who had decimated the previous generation of Congressmen from their respective states were given the choice of plum ministries. Ostensibly because of ‘coalition dharma’, the Congress party was quite unable to crack down on corruption in the government. This led to the Congress party getting unceremoniously booted out in 2014.
Come to think of it, the only ‘achievement’ of Sonia Gandhi was to shake the confidence of the Congress rank and file in
(a) Their ability to win elections on their own steam and
(b) In their ability to win elections by marketing the Hindu nationalistic moorings of their party and convincing them through her incompetent advisers that the only thing that could sell on the electoral box office was Hinduphobia and povertarianism.
One can but only hope for the sake of the health of Indian democracy that the party corrects the mistakes made by its outgoing President at the earliest.