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Inner voice, outer space

It?s a style of politics that now typifies the Sonia persona: intensely personalised, aggressively self-righteous, with a strong, almost nun-like moral streak.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2006 22:37 IST

In the tele-democracy that we have become, Sonia Gandhi appears to have emerged a clear winner. If sms polls are a barometer of public mood, then Sonia’s singular act of resigning as Lok Sabha MP appears to have reinforced her larger-than-life image within Indian politics, the image of a politician with a difference, a leader who is blessed with a high moral quotient.

Her critics may focus on the Congress’s brazen attempt to subvert parliamentary democracy by pushing through an ordinance that was designed to protect Sonia from disqualification over an archaic and stupid ‘office of profit’ provision. But for the average Indian citizen who is increasingly disconnected with the minutiae of politics, it’s the big picture that really matters. And the big picture is that Sonia has dared to do what few netas will do: sacrificed power to make a personal point.

It’s a style of politics that now typifies the Sonia persona: intensely personalised, aggressively self-righteous, with a strong, almost nun-like moral streak. If she is attacked on foreign origins, she offers to step down as she did when Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma questioned her authority as Congress president. If she is accused of being power-hungry, she chooses to dramatically decline the office of prime ministership. And now when she is accused of holding onto an ‘office of profit’, she once again simply chooses to quit her parliamentary seat. While the decisions may be personal, purely in terms of political strategy, they are remarkably effective. For when your political rivals are busy clamouring for your head, it’s so easy to reduce them to being seen as an ambitious, power-hungry crowd even while you loftily sit on a moral perch. So much of politics is about perception, and to be perceived as a selfless lady of renunciation and sacrifice is the kind of brand image that commands a huge cache in the ballot box. Who then cares if only a few months later, Sonia will be back as a member of Parliament from

the family pocket borough of Rae Bareli, not to forget her numerous other power positions, from National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson to the UPA chairperson. In the here and now of politics, Sonia has made her point.

The question though is, for how long can individual morality mask collective perfidy, especially when you are in the public space? How long can an act of grand personal morality — however genuine — be a substitute for public duty? In her private life, Sonia may truly be someone with an ‘inner voice’, someone who has a common sense approach to what is right and wrong, someone who will not voluntarily participate in any act of manipulation and corruption (there is no evidence, for example, that Sonia has ‘profited’ in  anyway from her post as NAC chairperson). But does that absolve her of the responsibility for the acts of omission and commission practised by members of her Congress party? It’s a bit like being an honest chief executive officer of a large corporation and then being supercilious and haughty about the unethical practices of the subordinate staff.

In the past 24 months, the Congress has committed several acts of political hara-kiri. In Jharkhand, the party used the governor’s office to install a minority government of Shibu Soren in power. In Bihar, President’s Rule was invoked at the midnight hour only to protect the interests of ally Lalu Yadav. At the Centre, the Law Ministry quietly de-froze Ottavio Quattrocchi’s accounts by using the CBI as a tool. And now, the attempted subversion of Parliament. The common feature of all these anti-democratic acts by the Congress is that they were carried out by ‘loyalists’, by metaphorically speaking Gandhi-topi wearing retainers of
the household. Whether it’s a Syed Sibtey Razi in Jharkhand, or a Buta Singh in Bihar or a H.R. Bhardwaj in the case of the unfreezing of Quattrocchi’s account, it was these ‘loyal Congressmen’ who in the pursuit of their loyal duty led the Congress into subverting the Constitution. In the case of the ordinance on the office of profit law and the scandalous adjourning of the Lok Sabha in mid-session, here too perhaps it was the ‘loyalists’ who were prepared to bring down parliamentary democracy simply in order to prove their ‘loyalty’. The loyalty trap leads Congressmen to greater and greater folly.

This is, then, the main problem with Sonia Gandhi’s brand of personalised morality. Personalised morality creates a saint cult which transforms a party into a gaggle of hero-worshippers. Personalised morality, in the absence of a publicly expressed morality, places the supreme leader in the dizzy stratosphere, where the inferior hordes must genuflect at the altar of a leader who stands so far above them that her example is just too perfect to emulate.

Karan Singh, Kapila Vatsyayan may have resigned, other MLAs and MPs may have offered to resign, but the Congress as an institution does not benefit from these acts of sensational morality. The fact that Sonia Gandhi chose to consult her family on this decision, the fact that Rahul Gandhi stood by his mother when she made the decision, the fact that no member of the CWC stood with her when she made her resignation speech, suggests that when it comes to the important decisions, Sonia and her children act alone, in absence of the party. This is the demonstration of a ‘royal family’ culture which consigns Congressmen to the flames of ever-burning ‘loyalty’.

Let’s draw a parallel with another Gandhi. When the Mahatma undertook his moral crusades, the causes were always those other than himself. Satyagraha was for freedom, the moral struggle was part of the political struggle, the fasts, the acts of renunciation, the celibacy, the life choices were all part of a sustained political campaign. In the process, the Mahatma helped build the institution of the Congress, an institution that had a strong ideological core, where the spirit of ‘sacrifice’ was always to be seen in the context of the larger goal of freedom.

By contrast, it would seem that for Sonia Gandhi, it is only when she is personally targeted, when she is personally named, that a sort of ‘who-are-they-to-question-me’ attitude tends to kick in, leading to a stunning act of renunciation. In the process, while Sonia’s personal appeal may have been enhanced — most opinion polls today will give her a high rating — the Congress has not benefited. Public institutions are built when the cause is always bigger than the individual, when the institutions function according to norms that are applied universally, not simply on a case-to-case basis for the leadership.

While announcing her resignation as an MP, and then during her emotionally surcharged speech in Rae Bareli, Sonia said she was going to fight the forces of communalism and her commitment to secularism remained unwavering. Fine words, no doubt well-intentioned. It’s just that my ‘inner voice’ suggests that they would have carried greater conviction had they been made when the Gujarat riots took place in 2002, and Sonia had resigned from Parliament at that time. That was the kind of larger ‘political’ campaign that called for a grand act of sacrifice and renunciation.

At least, that’s what the Mahatma would have done.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBNsardesai.rajdeep@gmail.com