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Friday, 10 December 1999

Clamour for Sonia Last Gasp of a Moribund Culture

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


After landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport, a visitor
can go to Jawaharlal Nehru University, but not before taking in
a performance at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. At JNU he may
be advised to contact the I.ndira Gandhi Open University or the
Indira Gandhi Centre for the Performing Arts. Thereafter perhaps
a dinner near Sanjay Van, followed the next day by a stroll along
the Ring Road, past the memorials to Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira
Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. That evening a visit
to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Nehru and Indira
Gandhi Memorials. And now, as though all this were insufficient,
Connaught Place has been renamed Indira Chowk and Rajiv
Chowk.

Great Passion 
From this decision one may safely infer the Union home minister's
great passion for the Nehru family. Had he demonstrated this
emotion by renaming his ancestral home after Jawaharlal Nehru,
or his children after Rajiv or Sanjay Gandhi, few would have
protested. However, what is objectionable is that he should
inflict his preferences on the rest of us. Not that such behaviour
in unknown among politicians. Alcohol is freely served in the
homes of many who advocate prohibition, just as many who
argue against education in English send their own children to
English-medium schools.

The Union home minister does have a defense for taking a
decision without any reference to the people who will be affected
by it, namely the citizens of Delhi. This is the fact that since 1973,
the ethos of his party has been similar to that of a sole
proprietorship, with the owner taking all the major decisions 
about policy and personnel, and delegating the rest only to
individuals in whom he or she has personal confidence. Except
for a brief return to democratic ways in 1992-93, the Congress
party has functioned in this manner for over two decades.

Indeed, grassroots support may be a handicap for a Congress
"leader". A person with an independent base may develop as a
threat, while a tainted individual will presumably be dependent
on his patron for survival and thus be servile. In such a system,
instead of a huge fund of public goodwill building up as the
result of the summation of goodwill accruing to numerous
leaders (each with a grassroots base), the entire pyramid fastens
leech—like on the "owner", living off his goodwill. Small wonder
that—whoever the leader—such goodwill soon evaporates and the
popularity of the entire party plummets.

Sometime during 1993, Prime Minister Rao took the decision
that has been at the root of most of the problems being faced by
him and his party today. This was to put on hold the process of
inner-party democracy in the Congress party. Sensing a threat to
their position, the clutch of leaders around him may have
warned of "loss of control" should the process go further. Had
the Prime Minister adopted an above-the—fray stance and allowed
grassroots sentiment to dictate the choice of local leaders, teams
may have formed in the states that would have generated greater
resonance in the electorate. However, almost all the leaders
around him would have lost their hold over local party machines.

There are indications that during this year, the Prime Minister
may have calculated that a return to power may not be compatible
with the retention of several of the leaders who have flourished
in the ”nomination culture" of the Congress party. And hence
the signals that the Azads, Jakhars, and others should quit the
government.

Such a realisation has come very late in the day for an
individual who could only "disc0ver" a Buta Singh, a Jagannath
Mishra or a J.B. Patnaik with which to "refurbish" his team.
There must have been an element of bravado, perhaps of
despair, in sending back for example, to Orissa the individual
who had presided over the rout of the party not so long ago. Or
indeed in making the persons who had led the Congress to
humiliating defeat in 1983 and 1985, chief minister of Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka respectively a few years later. However, 
it is a positive sign that Prime Minister Rao seems cognisant now
of the political harm caused by deadwood.

Fawning Courtiers
The deadwood, however, cannot be expected to welcome being
shunted aside. After all those who comprise it have their own
band of fawning courtiers telling them that India cannot survive
an instant without their remaining in office. So, when their
"host" gets restive and tries to snake them off, they look around
for a new "host" to fasten on to. Being political parasites, they
cannot survive on their own. Only those with grassroots support
can pull off such a feat, and these are individuals nurtured in a
culture that has contempt for the grassroots.

Hence their very public efforts to draft Sonia Gandhi into the
hurly-burly of Congress politics. Or if not her, at least her son or
daughter. Few of those fanning expectation of such a possibility
to the media are acting out of love for a family that has seen three
too many tragedies in the past 15 years. Rather, the intention is
to send a signal to Prime Minister Rao that if he abandons them,
there is a rival magnetic pole around which these iron filings can
congregate and embarrass him. More than a welcome mat for
Sonia Gandhi, the feverish efforts to whip up "spontaneous"
enthusiasm for her plunge into politics is actually intended as a
warning to Narasimha Rao. Thus far, however, Sonia Gandhi has
maintained an attitude of non—involvement in politics. Neither
have her children demonstrated any intention of entering on a
career that is becoming more irrelevant with each economic and
social advance made by the nation.

Downward Drift
Should the Prime Minister do what those flaunting the "10
Janpath" factor in his face expect him to — that is give up plans
for at least a partial clearing away of the ”nominationist"
deadwood that he has allowed himself to be surrounded by — the
game would be lost even if Sonia Gandhi did not get involved
in active politics. Only a practical acknowledgement of the need
to introduce probity and modernity into his team — with its
corollary of a chopping—away of deadwood—has a chance of
enhancing his political fortunes. The down-ward drift in these
fortunes has largely been caused by his unwillingness to recognize
that most of the worthies who clustered around Rajiv Gandhi
were liabilities to the fallen leader, just as they are for Narasimha
Rao. For four years the Prime Minister has made do with a
recycled team, rather than craft a new team with potential for the
future. Today, the very beneficiaries of such an action have
begun to bare their fangs, when they realise that their bluff of
political relevance may be called.

Unless Rao clears the "Rajiv barrier" of around 200 seats
(that is roughly the number of seats won under the leadership of
Rajiv Gandhi in 1989), the chance that he will be re-elected leader
of the Congress Parliamentary Party is nil. The Sharad Pawars,
Madhavrao Scindias and others will step into the ring, and one
of them will walk away with the prize. If the time before the
elections is short, that is an argument for Rao to initiate a faster
pace of change, rather than opt for a continuation of the stalemate.

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