Sunday, 20 December 1998

Sonia Gandhi: Placebo or Miracle Cure?

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

That Sonia Gandhi has enthused Congress workers is clear. Like
a bird that returns to its cage after a stint in freedom, the
Congress cadre has returned to the control of the heir to the
Nehru dynasty. Barring a few cases such as R. K. Dhawan, the
candidates selected by the Sonia Congress will be those expected
to be obedient to her wishes. Unless the Congress tally goes
below 100, she can be expected to control it. Should it rise
beyond 200, Sonia may emerge as the Prime Minister.

Even placebos do wonders for the mood of critically-ill
patients. However, they do nothing to cure the ailment, and
before long the depression returns. Thanks to the excellent
networking of those associated with the various institutions in
Delhi controlled by Sonia Gandhi, the media has been respectful
of claims of her popularity. While lesser breeds such as
T. N. Seshan and H. D. Deve Gowda got immediately exposed
when using private aircraft, there is silence on the sources of
Sonia’s facilities and their cost.

Knowledge of the reach of Gandhi family loyalists in
officialdom, and the fear of hyper-attention by such authorities,
can do wonders in dampening the ardour of the "free press".
However, even awestruck journalists cannot bring in the vote.
Thanks to the "minority-friendly" image of the Kesri Congress,
it was expected that much of this crucial vote bank would return
to the party, thus giving it around 20 more seats than the 1996
tally. Thus, any figure below 160 will be seen as the failure of the
Sonia Congress to improve upon the Kesri Congress. However,
used as they are to rule by the Dynasty, Congresspersons are
unlikely to return to the post-Dynasty situation unless the Lok
Sabha tally falls below three digits.

Given the likely improvement in Congress fortunes in three
southern states — Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh — as a
result of the incumbency factor, such an outcome is improbable.

Thus it was a reasonably safe calculation by Sonia Gandhi to
plunge into open politics. Short of an electoral or legal disaster,
she will play a key role in the 12th Lok Sabha. Her Congress will
once more have closeness to the Nehru family as the touchstone
for individual advancement.

However, the ills afflicting the Congress are many, and most
have been caused precisely by dynastic politics. The first
deficiency is the gap between the "leaders" and the "followers".
Because promotion flowed from closeness to the top in a rising
pyramid, very little effort was spent in cultivating the base.
Ordinary cadres were ignored, and consequently there was a
lack of appreciation — and even knowledge — of popular needs.
As for the cadres, since hard work by them benefited only the
favoured few and not those who put in the work, the tendency
was to go slow unless substantial monetary compensation was
paid. Thus, as Sriperumbudur and its measly crowd of 9000
showed, even the top stars of the party could not attract
audiences that were not rented. Despite delaying the meeting by
three hours in an effort to drum up the crowds, the turnout
remained low by Tamil standards.

The second problem facing the Congress party is the lack of
any definitive policy position on crucial issues. Pranab Mukherjee
and Manmohan Singh jockey for the prime slot in economic
policy formulation. Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada send off
differing signals on social issues. In each state the party is
splintered into different wings with sharply differing
prescriptions. For example, in Andhra Pradesh there is the
Reddy group led by V. B. Reddy, and the "social justice" set of
Hanumantha Rao. In Maharashtra there is the Maratha lobby led
by Sharad Pawar and the rival social group of
A. R. Antulay and S. R. Naik. The pulls and pressures cancel each
other out, and leave a policy vacuum.

The Nehru family technique has been to cover up this void
by projecting personalities and slogans. Thus, both Sonia and
Priyanka — and a few words of the local language — are expected
to overpower the negative impact on the Congress of the other
formations, all of whom have much more sharply defined policy

Instead of the "omnibus" Congress model, the rest have been
reaching out to different segments of the electoral bazaar, and
attracting the "niche" segments. Until the Congress begins to
target specific groups with clear policy prescriptions, and
establishes its credibility as a delivery system, all the media hype
generated by 10 Janpath is unlikely to alter the current picture
of a better Congress performance only in three southern states
and (perhaps) Madhya Pradesh, the last owing to the alliance
between Digvijay Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh.

That Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy, or that she and
Priyanka Vadra are Catholics, is not a "hot button" issue to an
electorate that is overwhelmingly secular and moderate. It is on
the opacity regarding the policies that the boss of the Congress
party favours that attention needs to get focused.

However, a breathless media appear unprepared to give
Sonia Gandhi the same level of scrutiny as it did to a Deve
Gowda or a P. V. Narasimha Rao. The United Front too, which
may have to share portfolios in a Sonia cabinet, is concentrating
on the B]P while almost ignoring the Dynasty, even though logic
indicates the Sonia’s debut will help the BJP (by its effect of
consolidating more nationalist votes away from Congress).

Even should the "miracle cure" work and the Congress tally
cross 160, her party can be freed of its descent into irrelevance,
only if Sonia moves away from dynastic prescriptions and
encourages inner-party democracy. This appears an unlikely
proposition. What is more probable in a Dynasty-led government
is a stiff dose of populist policies and the increase in regulation
that characterises Nehru family rule. This will fit in with the free-
spending ways of the present United Front government, though
not with economic realities, which — along with Sonia's party —
need tough medicine rather than placebos for health.

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