Saturday, 20 March 1999

Prime Minister Sonia? (Rediff)

In 1997, the then I K Gujral government allocated a government bungalow in Delhi's prestigious Lodhi Estate to a young married couple. It was a significant wedding gift, with a market value in excess of Rs 100 million. It was also the first time in the history of Independent India that a newly married couple had been given such a subsidy by a country that has more desperately poor people within it than any other.

However, obviously kind-hearted as he is, the then prime minister decided that a capital cost of Rs 100 million and annual costs of Rs 4 million plus on security and other expenses was not excessive, especially as the taxpayer and not the himself would have to foot the burden.

Sadly, the wedding gift did not save poor Gujral from being bundled out of office by the very mother of the charming bride. Perhaps the official reason for the gift was responsible for the lady's anger. It was expressly stated that the new residence was essential for 'security reasons'. Logically, this would mean that the bride and groom would have been unsafe in the sprawling government-provided bungalow occupied by her mother, the mother's two divorced sisters, and her son on his visits to India. What a slur to cast on anyone, that her own daughter is not safe if she shares the same roof as her mother! No wonder that Gujral was bundled out by Sonia Gandhi, the distinguished occupant of 10 Janpath.

Sonia Gandhi Sonia Gandhi has given no indication that she is below the poverty line. Indeed, the income-tax records of her parents, sisters and their former husbands would indicate the financial progress of this delightful family, especially during the 1980s. However, for some odd reason neither our globetrotting journalists nor any government (including the present one) has as yet revealed ANY of the details about the most powerful family in -- sorry, in and out of -- India.

No one has asked whether Rahul has been these past nine years, and what he is doing now. No one is going into the progress in the business of the son-in-law ever since he married into the family that owns India. And if there have been news reports about the periodicity of the family's foreign visits, and their cost to the taxpayer in one form or the other, these have appeared in publications yet to be launched. Such a lack of interest in the likely candidate for India's next prime minister indicates that it was not just during the Emergency that the press crawled before the official Gandhis. 

For there happens to be another daughter-in-law as well, one who stays in her own house and who writes about dogs and cats. The difference in what the State spends on the one and on the other is enormous, though that can be explained away by the fact that as a nation, India is yet to forget the fact that it was ruled by Europeans for 500 years. Had Sonia been from Africa or from China, definitely the elite in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities would not have crawled for an invitation to some banquet where one can view the Empress of India from far away. 

Way back in the Narasimha Rao years, Digvijay Singh, N D Tiwari and others would not have waited in the sun at Lucknow airport for hours to catch a glance from Sonia (and a smile from Priyanka) as they boarded a helicopter for Amethi. In the old days, domestic servants used to wait at the gates for the Master and Mistress to come. Nothing has changed.

Lest all this be construed as an attack on Sonia, let it be clear that the lady was a loving wife and is a devoted mother. Rajiv Gandhi was lucky to have won her heart, and she took good care of him. She has also been a supportive parent, especially to her son. In private, Sonia Gandhi is a shy and attractive individual, sincere both in her likes and her aversions. However, she should never have succumbed to the pressure of retainers and entered politics. By doing so, she has taken up a task that is both distant and distasteful to her. She has opened herself up to scrutiny and criticism, which cannot long be postponed.

There is a proverb: be careful of what you wish, you may get it. Should Sonia Gandhi get the position that she has been aiming at, the chair once occupied by her husband and two others from his family, her first few forays in Parliament will show the extent of her mistake. While journalists may exhibit a masochistic delight in being ignored, the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Fernandes are unlikely to be so forgiving. Instead of one decision every week, there will be twenty or more in a day, many of which will attract the same flak that Sonia's help to Rabri Devi did.

The upper castes in India have for long regarded those of European descent as their equals, so it was not surprising that after the lady from Torino took over the Congress party, the upper castes began streaming back to her, especially in the Hindi belt. Another year, and such a process would have reduced the BJP to the level of the BSP. However, by ensuring Rabri's return, Sonia has stopped the flow of upper-caste voters from BJP to the Congress. Poor Salman Khursheed's vociferous sallies against Mulayam Singh Yadav (designed for this target audience) have now gone in vain.

The Dalits too have reason to be angry. Under Rabri Rule, every few weeks there have been reported massacres of Dalits in Bihar. This was why Dalits from across the political divide (except for those in the Congress and the RJD-Left alliance) supported the imposition of President's Rule. Today Sonia has given anti-Congress elements a powerful talking point with the Dalits.

When a foreigner and his two sons got killed in Orissa, the AICC president (correctly) got the chief minister to quit. When Dalits accounting for many times that number were butchered in Bihar, Rabri was reinstalled thanks to Sonia Gandhi. This difference in attitude will be the stuff of election campaigns.

Thus, despite the failures of the BJP -- including in getting a manifestly incompetent chief minister to quit in Gujarat -- Sonia Gandhi has given it oxygen thanks to the Bihar decision. The only vote banks that she can attract will be he Yadavs and the Muslims. The first are unlikely to desert Laloo and Mulayam for Sonia, while the more Muslims stream towards Congress, the weaker will Laloo and Mulayam become, without at the same time giving the Congress enough of a boost to get many more seats. Again, this cutting into the Laloo-Mulayam vote bank can only help the BJP.

While a formal alliance with the two can salvage some of the wreck, it will not compensate for the desertion of the Dalit-upper caste vote.

However, the odds are more than even that Sonia Gandhi will be able to engineer the fall of the Vajpayee government this year. Confirmed reports indicate that four MPs of the Samata Party, two each from the Akali Dal and the Biju Janata Dal and five from the Telugu Desam have agreed to change sides. What is holding up the process is the fact that thus for AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha has not yet decided on whether to leave the BJP-led alliance or not. And unless the AIADMK shifts over, the new team will not have a comfortable margin in the Lok Sabha.

That efforts are on to get installed a non-BJP government is therefore known to all except the prime minister, who relies on his handpicked PMO and PMH confidants to keep him abreast of what goes on. These individuals -- none of whom have any understanding of 1990s Indian politics -- have apparently lulled the prime minister into the very complacency that 10 Janpath has been promoting through its moles in the Prime Minister's Office and the Prime Minister's House.

One hitch is that the Congress is as yet unwilling to get formally integrated into the alternative government, whether by deputing members to join the Cabinet or to take part in a coordination committee where the members will have Cabinet status. The AICC wants a repeat of the Gujral-Deve Gowda arrangement, where it can pull out at will. This many within the negotiating team on the other side are unwilling to buy. They want to postpone a general election by at least a year. The Congress wants to cash in on the present momentum and hold them this year, before any more Bihar-like fiascoes emerge. This is the fundamental dissonance between the anti-BJP partners. 

Sonia Gandhi needs time, not to take on the BJP but to finish off her rivals within the Congress party. Chief among these is Sharad Pawar, still a powerful force in Maharashtra, as well as being very influential within the Congress nationally. In the coming assembly poll in the state, the anti-incumbency factor should work to the Congress's favour. However, if the Pawar group gets sidelined in the distribution of tickets, they may resort to sabotage.

Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh Sonia selected Y S Rajasekhar Reddy as the PCC chief. It would be unfair to say that this was because Rajashekhar is also a Christian, for the fact is that he is a powerful player with strong grassroots support. However, his handicap is that many communities in the state do not want Reddy dominance to return, and thus may stick with Chandrababu Naidu. Secondly, even more than Naidu or the BJP, many influential leaders of the Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh fear Rajashekhar Reddy, and may sabotage his candidates in the coming assembly poll.

A shrewd politician makes up with former rivals and adds to her or his base. An example is the working together of the once-rivals Selvi Jayalalitha and Subramanian Swamy. However, Sonia Gandhi has sought to sideline all those who were perceived as close to P V Narasimha Rao, and has promoted those belonging to the Tiwari Congress or those who quit the party during Rao's period. She is also hitting at those close to former AICC president Sitaram Kesri.

So long as the times are good, this will not matter. But a change in temperature may result in trouble from those who resent being penalised for sticking with the Congress during 1991-96 while the current group of Sonia favourites were working hard at getting the Congress defeated in 1996. However, unlike Sonia -- who is tough and determined in defending her interests -- the anti-Sonia group within the Congress is thus far playing a role familiar to them, that of being blind mice.

Briefly, why this columnist would be dismayed at Sonia becoming the prime minister is that the country is not yet 'civilised' enough to accept such a novelty. Even Italians -- cultured and accomplished though they may be -- may not entirely feel comfortable with the prospect of an immigrant from Bihar becoming their Numero Uno. As for the British, the time when a Keith Vaz or a Meghnad Desai can be prime minister is far distant. Even the Welsh and the Irish have trouble making it to that position. Thus, a Sonia installation would lead to a speeding-up of communal feelings within the Majority Community in India, and polarise rather than bring together different communities.

Secondly, her limited experience in administration does not give much prospect of a scintillating reign. Thirdly, for her own sake and for her family's, it would be better to keep away from the heat of that particular pressure cooker. Unlike the conventional wisdom, it is not those who hate Sonia Gandhi who want to keep her away from politics, but those who like her. 

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