In a very short while, the entire country is likely to follow the Congress party to bliss. Sonia Gandhi, nee Maino, will be the leader of the government, just as a year after she took over formally as Congress president. No doubt many wise commentators will write about her 'reluctance' to assume office, and about how circumstances forced her into South Block despite her misgivings.
However, history tells a different tale. This is of a lady who decided in 1995 that she wanted to take back the family jagir from the benami who had taken control of it in 1991, Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao. She made it clear to Rao that "in the party's interest" she expected him to announce that he would not be contesting the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, but would hand over the baton to the proprietor of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.
Bad luck for Rao, he did not oblige. While ensuring that her control over public funds via the family trusts continued, and that inconvenient investigations into various deals were killed off, Narasimha Rao consulted his cardiac specialist -- a young and brilliant doctor from Andhra Pradesh with political traditions -- and decided to attempt a second term. This meant a declaration of war.
Soon various public spirited individuals began filing PILs and circulating documents about Narasimha Rao. His road to prison began to get prepared, using both the criminal charges track and the other tack of getting a Justice Jain to dream up a conspiracy theory in which everybody other than the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the Rajiv assassination. Justice Jain, however, did not dwell on those Congress leaders who insisted in June 1991 that Rajiv should visit Tamil Nadu, despite a clear warning that there was danger.
Even on the day of his death, angry Congresspersons operating from 10 Janpath insisted that Rajiv should fly to Chennai. Indeed, one particular office-bearer of the AICC insisted that Rajiv spend the night in Sriperumbudur in the home of a businessman with Singapore links. However, the security staff vetoed this order. They did not, however, raise serious objections to the Sriperumbudur programme, despite the clear warning from the Tamil Nadu government against the visit.
Justice Jain did not ask too deeply how Dhanu was allowed into the inner cordon, and who got her in, such questions would have led to embarrassment -- for those close to a Madhya Pradesh leader who has since 1995 been Sonia's chief advisor. Thus the good Justice ignored the complicity of Congress dignitaries close to the MP politico, and went off instead in pursuit of the real target of the 'investigation,' Narasimha Rao. Had Justice Jain been a wee bit more credible, there may by now have been a trial in which it would have been argued that Rao killed Rajiv to become prime minister. That Rao, in effect, knew that the Congress would get a poll boost from the murder, and that Sonia Gandhi would back him for the top post. Which is what she did, believing that he was the most temporary of stopgaps.
Since 1995, the Sonia people in the Congress began trying to wreck the party, setting up candidates against it in most states, often even helping BJP candidates to defeat Congress nominees. Today, those who worked so actively against the party in the 1996 polls have taken it over, because they acted at Sonia's behest. Today Arjun Singh, Shiela Dixit, N D Tiwari, Natwar Singh, M L Fotedar, Mohsina Kidwai, Manish Tiwari and others dominate the Congress party. Conversely, those who were loyal to it during the Rao period have got pushed into the rathouse (the doghouse being too good for them).
If in 1998 the Congress under Rao was 'weakened' by the exit of the Sonia brigade, by 1998 it was effectively led to the polls by the lady herself, with the entire charisma of the Tiwari Congress added to the scales. Despite this, the party did worse than in 1996. The explanation given was that it would have got 'obliterated' but for Sonia, small wonder that the ingenious Arjun Singh is a favourite at the Sonia Court.
After taking over as AICC president on the strength of his supplications before Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri had periodically mouthed the mantra that Sonia should take over. On March 7, 1998 he declared at a press conference that Sonia was needed. As fate decreed, Sonia evidently watched Kesri's performance on television and decided to make the old courtier happy by agreeing to his request. A week later, both A K Antony and Ahmed Patel suddenly told Kesri that it was time for Sonia to take over. Confident that she would not, Kesri agreed.
On 14 March, 1998, at a Working Committee meeting, most of the members demanded that Kesri step down. An angry Kesri stormed out with Tariq Anwar, confident that the CWC members would run after him asking him to stay. Instead, they went to 10 Janpath and brought back Sonia Gandhi just 17 minutes after Kesri had left. The 'reluctant' lady thereupon assumed charge as AICC president. It must be torture for her to wait longer before claiming the other part of the Nehru inheritance, the Government of India.
It was their exclusion from power that irritated Congress MPs enough to support first Kesri and then Sonia (via Arjun Singh) in bringing down the Gowda and Gujral governments. Today almost no Congress MP wants a repetition of 'outside support.' They want to serve the country by becoming ministers. Sonia too wants to serve the famished millions of India by being the first Orbassano-born individual in history to ever become a prime minister. Ideally, Sonia and her flock would like to see a Congress ministry supported from outside by the other parties. In other words, exactly what that other great strategist, Sitaram Kesri, had in mind when he toppled Deve Gowda in 1997.
The problem is that Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav and others who voted out the BJP a few days ago are not sanyasis. They will not be happy to provide the majority for Sonia and her 141 Congress MPs to enjoy the fruits of office -- sorry, suffer the burden of being in power. They, being generous souls, would like to share the burden with their Congress friends. Thus, any setup that relies on outside support of the allied parties will be as stable as an aircraft with one wing. Unless the Congress party enters into an equitable power-sharing arrangement with its now allies, its stint is likely to be brief. And the impact of the disaster will be reflected in the polls that follow. The Congress will need strategic alliances with SP/BSP in UP, RJD in Bihar and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Excluding them from power will not enhance the Congress chances of getting a good deal then.
If the Congress believes that it can get 300 seats in the next poll courtesy the charm and dash of Sonia Gandhi, a reality check is needed. The odds are that coalitions are here to stay. That being the case, it would be better for the party to accept a full-fledged coalition on the Kerala model rather than seek to go it alone. It can then see just how capable Sonia Gandhi really is in facing Parliament and in keeping a non-docile flock together. Unlike the modern Congressman, who is indeed proud of his or her servitude to the Nehru family, Mayawati, Laloo and Mulayam will expect to be treated not as retainers but as equals. This will be a culture shock for Sonia, who has left her origins far behind, and singlehandedly pushed her family up the social ladder.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, stability would be best served by a coalition that has a non-Congress prime minister. It is relevant to recall that the most stable ministry in Kerala was the one headed by Chelat Achutha Menon between 1970-77. Although the Congress was the largest party in the coalition, it was the CPI that was given the chief ministership. Should the Congress show a similar magnanimity at the central level in 1999, there is a good chance that the resulting coalition will be stable. However, this would mean a shelving of Sonia's burning desire to serve the masses by moving back into 7 Racecourse road. This time as both the de facto as well as the de jure prime minister of India.
The chances are that a Sonia regime would be just what the BJP needed to get back into the reckoning. Apart from Laloo and Mulayam, large sections of the Left are likely to quickly realise that the best way to boost the BJP presence in Bengal and Kerala is to support a Sonia-led government that is not even a coalition. It would be suicide for the Left to accept this, no matter that Jyoti Basu (whose love for Europe is no secret) feels differently. All allies of such a government would lose large chunks of the nationalist vote to a resurgent BJP.
By trying so hard to grab power just for herself, Sonia is making the same mistake that the hardline faction in the BJP made when it cut a secret deal with the DMK to launch a hidden attack on Jayalalitha. The hardliners were unhappy at having to run a minority government, and sought to behave as though the BJP had 280 seats rather than a hundred less. Thanks to the clumsy diplomacy with the AIADMK, Jayalalitha got alienated. Thanks to the Kalyan Singh episode, Mayawati became a foe. Thanks to shoddy handling, Chautala walked away. That Vajpayee had a very incompetent set of crisis managers must be clear even to him. Indeed, the Vajpayee team created rather than doused fires. However, Sonia's kitchen cabinet is no better. In weeks, they are likely to plunge her government into disrepute.
The BJP is down, but it is not out, despite the best efforts of Sonia Gandhi. Unless the Congress adopts a practical and realistic approach, it is likely to see a BJP-led government emerge out of the wreck of the confidence motion. Sonia Gandhi does not have the cards Arjun Singh has made her behave are hers. 1998 proved that, 1999 will, once again.