The enigma of silence
The Congress posters may have the faces of Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh along with Sonia Gandhi, but in the trimurti, only the party president matters. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.columns Updated: Sep 05, 2013 23:43 IST
First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win!: Mahatma Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi is no Mahatma (although sycophantic Congressmen would have you believe otherwise), but her political career does parallel Gandhi's words of wisdom to aspiring netas.
She was ignored in the Narasimha Rao years; she was ridiculed when she first entered politics (remember the famous 272 MPs gaffe); she was fought viciously on the foreign origins issue; and then she finally did win in 2004 when her inner voice told her not to aspire for the prime ministerial chair after the Congress pulled off a miraculous victory.
In the last nine years though, over the course of UPA 1 and UPA 2, Sonia Gandhi has been the Phantom of the political opera, the shadowy figure residing behind the forbidding walls of 10 Janpath, wielding enormous clout through the extra constitutional National Advisory Council but with limited accountability.
As UPA 2 in particular has been buffeted by one storm after another, Sonia has been mostly missing in action. The target of Opposition ire has been mostly Manmohan Singh, a prime minister reduced to a silent, forlorn figure by the relentless opposition campaign.
Until last week, when suddenly, Sonia Gandhi once again seemed to rediscover her appetite for a political fight. As she stood up to defend the food security Bill, it was actually her debut speech in the 15th Lok Sabha. As she declaimed, "The question is not whether we can do it or not. We have to do it," the UPA MPs clapped and cheered almost as if they had won the next general elections.
This column shall not go into the economic merits or otherwise of the food security Bill: far more learned voices have already had their say on the entitlement-versus-growth argument.
But the politics underlying Sonia Gandhi's return to centre-stage are important. For the last four years, either because of health concerns or deliberate choice, Mrs Gandhi has chosen not to play a dominant role within the UPA power structure.
At least in UPA 1, she was there for the prime minister in difficult times, like during the Indo-US nuclear deal. In UPA 2, by contrast, she has been mostly a backstage player, staying away when the government faced a series of crises, from Anna's agitation to corruption scandals to inter-ministerial squabbles.
From time to time, there have been whispers that the Manmohan-Sonia equation has broken down, though this speculation has never been supported by hard evidence.
What is more likely is that after the UPA returned to power in 2009, Sonia Gandhi had almost decided to 'abdicate' the throne like a royal Queen Mother. The prevailing belief then was that Rahul Gandhi would, at some stage, take over the reins of party and government.
Sonia had done her job, the party had been saved, the dynastic line of succession had been established. Rahul was at an age when her late husband had become prime minister, so there was no reason to believe that a coronation was not in order.
As it has turned out though, Rahul Gandhi has spent much of the last four years flitting in and out of politics. He has steadfastly refused to take any ministerial post, has been bruised by electoral defeats in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and has shown a marked reluctance to lead from the front when the party has looked up to him to deliver.
A seemingly uninspiring and detached Rahul Gandhi and a fatigued and hobbled prime minister have left Sonia Gandhi with no choice but to place her decision to take political sanyas on hold.
The Congress is now in a desperate position, almost akin to the situation when Sonia Gandhi took over the party after its debacle in the 1998 elections. Then, in a bloodless coup, Mrs Gandhi had removed the old man in a hurry, Sitaram Kesri, and galvanised the party rank and file.
Now, she is being asked to do it again. Only this time, she can't position herself as the lady in white and wear the cloak of victimhood. In the face of growing anti-incumbency and a general sense of drift and disillusionment, the UPA has few cards left to play. Except one, the oldest one: the poverty gambit.
Sonia Gandhi has always been inspired by her mother-in-law and Indira Gandhi's Garibi Hatao sloganeering. When in doubt, the Congress always turns to the past.
The politics behind food security and the land acquisition Bill is designed to convince the Congress' traditional voter that the party's heart lies in jhuggi-jhopris, in large swathes of the countryside and in creating a Bharat-versus-India divide.
India has changed, what has not is the Congress' mindset which believes that votes must be got from a sense of noblesse oblige to the 'poor' of this country. The Congress leadership maybe very much khaas admi, but its heart, we are told, lies with the aam admi. The narrative may seem awfully condescending, but for Congress workers this is the only politics they can truly relate to.
Whether this strategy works in a low growth, double-digit inflation regime is highly questionable. What is certain is the next election will not be so much Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi, as Sonia versus Modi.
The Congress posters may well have the faces of Rahul and Manmohan along with Sonia, but in the trimurti, only Sonia really matters. If the Congress has any hope to survive the Modi juggernaut, its longest serving president has to step up to the podium again.
Post-script: After Sonia's speech in Parliament, an Opposition leader asked a group of journalists: "You question us all the time, when will you do a no holds barred interview with Mrs Gandhi?"
Good question. Our honest answer: how do you question someone who won't speak? Guess Sonia Gandhi's power revolves around the enigma of silence.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal