As Sonia Gandhi recovers from her highly secretive surgery, there are justifiable questions as to why the Indian public is not allowed to know what ails the leader of the main political party. Had some brief details been made available then as at the time of Rajinikanth’s illness, or during Amitabh Bachchan’s Coolie accident, there may well have been a spontaneous outpouring of public sympathy.
What does Sonia Gandhi mean for the Congress?
She is now almost irreplaceable. She’s not only held her party together for the last 12 years, but achieved an almost unbelievable political turnaround for the Congress by leading it to two consecutive Lok Sabha victories. Her preferred style is silence. She hardly speaks to the press. She almost never speaks in Parliament. Like a good bahu, she places her final faith in the Family she married into. Her public discourse is family-oriented. Copying Indira Gandhi’s Belchi-style politics, she has also opted for a direct-line-to-the poor approach. She’s the child-hugging, poor-embracing nun-politician — an image that no other politician seems to think it worthwhile to cultivate.
Modern India’s relationship with the Congress dynasty is an ambivalent one. Most of the educated middle class detests the dynastic leadership of the Congress. The Hindu Right is near-obsessed with ‘Sonia Maino’, the target of their ‘nationalist’ ire against a ‘foreign-born’ leader of India. Indeed, family raj across all parties is fast turning out to be one of the biggest threats to democracy because it has the potential to block open entry and the rise of new talent. Yet, at the same time as we hate dynasty, we Indians are also fascinated by family sagas. The family, indeed a suffering high profile family, that has endured deaths, assassinations and illnesses captivates Indian audiences as instantly as any saas-bahu serial.
When Sonia’s illness and Rahul’s ascent to the top echelon of the Congress was announced last week, there were instant online fulminations about dynasty, mainly from the Hindu Right. The ease with which Rahul has taken his seat at the Congress High Table would perhaps be unthinkable in any mature democracy. But co-existing with the anger against the dynasty is a morbid fascination with the tragedies that have gripped every generation of the Gandhi family.
Sonia Gandhi embodies the power of the suffering family. The Gandhi family, whether we like it or not, is a 150-year-old brand in Indian politics. It may fly in the face of democracy, it may retard the emergence of the Congress as a modern political party, but it is the glue that holds the party together and the reason why it is far easier for a Gandhi to strike an emotional chord with the public than it is for any other politician.
In the run up to 2014, if the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, took to the streets and harked to their dead father and ailing widowed mother, then in spite of grave reservations about dynasty, the Indian voter may once again plump for a Gandhi. Already in the CNN IBN-CSDS opinion poll on leadership, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the most popular political leader, half way through the UPA’s second term.
Sonia Gandhi has been always been unabashed about her family’s manifest destiny. In a rare TV interview, she pointed proudly to the memorial that would be made for her at Anand Bhawan in Allahabad, next to other late family members. She has openly said that she wants the Women's’ Reservation Bill because it was her husband’s dream. Her children are her closest advisers.
She’s thus a proxy for the Gandhi ancestors. Submitting to her is like submission to the Gandhi pantheon from Motilal to Rajiv. She’s no modern woman trying to carve her own identity. Instead she is the self-abnegating bahu who unapologetically demands others serve and respect her family as she does.
As a politician she has demonstrated an abiding faith in loyal old-timers, whether in throwing her support behind Pratibha Patil’s candidature for president or Meira Kumar’s as speaker. Her statements, like the nationalisation of banks by Indira Gandhi was a positive thing, shows that hers is the politics of second-guessing her late mother-in law and husband, and doing only what she thinks they would have considered permissible.
Even her aam aadmi slogan, which won her the 2004 election, was a hark back to Indira’s ‘garibi hatao’ slogan, and through the National Advisory Council her political interventions have mirrored a traditional view of the Congress as quintessentially pro-poor and left-of-centre.
Her commitment to family legacy may have retarded the Congress’s democratic impulses. But by putting the family temple at the centre of the Congress, she has welded warring living Congress members in service to common dead ancestors. She is, thus, a bridge between the dead and the living, a constant reminder of the past.
Respect for old-timers, allowing families to bring in their sons and daughters, persisting with status quo, and a feudal remoteness have been Sonia’s mantras. It’s not surprising that there’s a veil of secrecy over her illness. It adds to the carefully preserved mystique, a larger-than-life aura that has protected her from having to answer tough questions like her peers have to do.
Whether Rahul, with his managerial and laptop-style politics will have the same benefits is uncertain. And while he claims he wants to give the Congress a new look, perhaps he should learn from his mother that the Congress functions far better as a quasi-family than as a normal political party.
( Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN )
The views expressed by the author are personal