Friday, 20 November 1998

Sonia's Game Plan: Can the 'Dynasty' Make a Comeback?

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Since December 1980, when Rajiv Gandhi was given an office in
the Prime Minister’s House and began to be groomed as his
mother's successor, Sonia Gandhi has played a silent role in
governance. An early sign of her influence was the advisory role
given to her brother-in—law Walter Vinci (then married to Sonia’s
elder sister Annouschka) by a blue-chip company. This was
despite Vinci's lack of significant formal qualifications.
Subsequently, an export firm was set up to send abroad Indian V
handicraft. Although allegations were often raised about "art
treasures" being sent out through this route, the charges were
never pursued.

The abrupt transfer of Jose Valdemoro, then married to Sonia
Gandhi’s younger sister Nadia, reflected the new power equations 
after Sanjay Gandhi’s death in a plane crash in June 1980. The
Spanish diplomat was shifted from Lima, Peru to New Delhi by
his government. Subsequently, he too began to devote attention
to economic relations between India and other countries. Along
with a friend from Turin, Ottavio Quatrocchi, he had impressive
success in persuading the India government to see the merits in
the products of companies approved by them. Snam Progetti
and CASA were prime examples.

Despite the Indian government’s expensive presence in over
a hundred world capitals, it has not thus far been able to trace
the whereabouts of Quatrocchi who is wanted for questioning by
the CBI in Bofors, hawala and other cases. As for Vinci and
Valdemoro, both disappeared from the scene after P. V.
Narasimha Rao, strangely, began giving preference to his own
relatives rather than to those of Gandhi. Coincidentally, this shift
in prime ministerial affections was marked by a cooling-off of
relations between Sonia Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, Since
1993—when the then Prime Minister finally shook off the coils
of the past—Sonia Gandhi has seldom hidden her distaste of the

While much of the Indian media has treated Sonia Gandhi
with kid gloves, individuals close to her have revealed what they
claim are details of her political thinking. That Sonia Gandhi is
keenly interested in politics is apparent from her visitors’ book.
Especially during the past three months, she has talked to a
variety of politicians, almost all of whom have given details of
the alleged interactions to their confidants. Piecing together
some of these recollections, and talking to individuals known to
be close to her, the contours of what these sources claim to be the
"Sonia Gandhi game plan" emerge:
(1) The first stage would be the removal of P. V. Narasimha
Rao as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party.
In this, all techniques are deemed as fair, ranging from
the allegations of corruption against Rao and his allies
to moves to bring back Rao-baiters into the Congress
party. While Sharad Pawar is now an ally of 10 Janpath,
the preferred choice to replace Rao is Manmohan Singh,
according to these sources.
(2) After installing a Sonia-friendly CPP leader, the next
step would be to intensify the public attacks on the Deve
Gowda government, simultaneously winning over the
TDP, the TMC, the DMK, the SP and influential
individuals inside the Ianata Dal. After a few months,
the time would come for implementation of the second
stage, which is the replacement of the Deve Gowda
government with one headed by the new CPP leader.
(3) Such a government would hold office for around 18
months, during which time Sonia Gandhi would emerge
from her purdah and campaign for the Congress. This,
according to her admirers, would suffice to whip up a
wave of popular enthusiasm for the Congress that
replicates 1971 and 1984. A fresh election would be
called, in which three-fourths of the Congress tickets
would be given to new entrants judged to be responsive
to the wishes of 10 Janpath. After the election, a young
and "dynamic" individual would emerge as the Prime
Minister. If our sources are correct, the first preference
is for Madhavrao Scindia.

There is, of course, a final stage, which is the emergence of
a scion of the Nehru family as the understudy of the Sonia-
friendly Prime Minister. After one or perhaps two terms in office,
he would make way for a better qualified individual, either
Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi. Thereafter, India would once
again make stupendous progress, just as it did between 1947-64,
1966-67 and 1980-89.

If our sources (who were so careful to maintain anonymity
that some of the sessions took place in off peak times in public
parks rather than in homes or restaurants) are to be believed,
there is a carefully-crafted strategy behind the sphinx-like silence
of Sonia Gandhi. According to them, the plan is on the lines
sketched above, with the rough timetable for the fall of Rao being
January 1997, and the installation of the new government
following some four months from then. Not entirely accidentally, 
individuals close to Sonia Gandhi have reportedly been briefing
mediapersons on the "imminence" of the fall of the Gowda

While Sonia Gandhi, following the example of Rao, refuses
to communicate with the media, there are others who do so ably.
Apart from Scindia and Arjun Singh, another politician known
to be close to her is P. Chidambaram. Amitabh Bachchan — whose
clout was recently demonstrated during the Miss World contest
in Bangalore — is another close associate. In addition, there are
the numerous trusts and other institutions controlled by her,
which together add up to an impressive public presence. Also,
there is little doubt that many Congress office-bearers have a
reflexive servility to her. This was clear, for example, during last
year’s trip to Amethi, when top politicians such as Digvijay
Singh and N. D. Tiwari waited by the barricades in the hope of
attracting a smile from her. However, there are three reasons
why the game plan contoured above may fail;
(a) The first reason is Sitaram Kesri. The AICC president is
a wily survivor who has at last escaped from
subordination to others. He is unlikely to mortgage this
new-found freedom to any individual, including Gandhi,
and therefore may follow his own game plan.
(b) The second obstacle is P. Vi Narasimha Rao. Despite the
blows he has suffered, he retains substantial strength
within the Congress Parliamentary Party. Thus, while it
is possible that he may have to step down, the
replacement may not be a Sonia nominee but a Rao
favourite such as G. Venkatswamy, a Dalit and former
minister. Should this take place, the desire of the Sonia
camp to install a Congress-led govemment may receive
a setback.
(c) The final obstacle will be Deve Gowda. His rustic
exterior and "humble" mien hides a fierce ambition and
a willingness to do battle that Narasimha Rao has
seldom displayed. The Prime Minister has built a career
out of being under-estimated, and may yet surprise his
foes. Despite the confidence shown by the Sonia camp,
the game may be far from over.

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