Mrs Sonia Gandhi needs no introduction. Being a shrewd politician herself, Mrs Gandhi has inherited it all. She was conspicuous by her absenteeism in Indian politics before she was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress (INC) party in 1998, to save the dwindling fortunes of the party when the party was battling with internal dissent from the likes of Rajesh Pilot, Madhav Rao Scindia and P Chidambaram.
During her stint as the first lady, she was an extremely passive public figure. To the common man who saw her only as a part of her husband’s election campaign entourage, she came across as a Nehru-Gandhi bahu, divorced from the ground realities of the nation. She spent three decades in the nation before she attempted to establish a personal connect with the masses on her own. From then on, she played the dynasty card blatantly, garnering emotional and political support on the back of her family’s contribution to the nation during the freedom struggle, and thereon in the course of nation building.
In 1999, Sonia Gandhi formally announced her arrival on the stage of Indian rajneeti when she contested and won Lok Sabha seats from both Bellary and Amethi, defeating the seasoned BJP veteran Sushma Swaraj in Bellary. Sonia Gandhi’s entry into active politics was a clear message on the leadership crisis that India’s oldest political party was going through. The party was deeply divided on the lines of power and ideology, under Kesri’s leadership. At such trying times, the only common thread was the party’s reverence for the Nehru-Gandhi lineage, and Sonia Gandhi was their last unifying resort.
Unfortunately, her leadership did not yield instant dividends for the Indian National Congress. The Sonia Gandhi-led INC lost the 1999 General Elections, getting 28.30% of the vote, its lowest ever till then. Almost instantly, her leadership skills came under the scanner. She had a minimal body of work to defend her position, that she had acquired by virtue of being a Gandhi. Her political acumen was yet to be tested. Most importantly, her ability, willingness, and commitment towards working for the welfare of the nation was yet to be actualised. Perhaps many Indians, who patronised the Nehru-Gandhi family, were not very excited about endorsing people that they associated with imperialism and avarice. I remember a school teacher telling us how uncomfortable she was with Sonia Gandhi being at the helm of affairs of INC. She said, “Are we so devoid of leadership, that we need a non-Indian to take charge.” In “An Era of Darkness”, Shashi Tharoor writes that two hundred years of British Raj complete with “avarice, pride, cruelty, malignity, haughtiness, insolence” has made Indians sceptical of entrusting the reigns of governance with any person of foreign origin. To make matters worse, INC was juxtaposed with BJP’s nationalist ideology, further strengthened by Vajpayee’s display of strategic acumen during the Kargil war. Mrs Gandhi had little going for INC, except the inebriated addiction of the INC itself.
INC’s performance in 2004 was belied by an increase of 27% in the Lok Sabha seats from the 1999 debacle. In the 2004 elections, the party won 145 seats. The total number of voters increased by 6.95% in 2004, while the total number of votes of the INC increased by a meagre 0.28%. Ideally, parties get votes based on their work delivery during the previous term. In 2004, INC won seats because the BJP lost them. At a point when it looked inevitable that Mrs Gandhi would be sworn in as the 13th Prime Minister of India, it was heartening to see the architect of economic reforms, Dr Manmohan Singh assume office. When Mrs. Gandhi said, “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.” Did she mean that she didn’t feel it was right for her to govern the nation? In that case, why did she ever agree to be a part of active electoral politics? She would have faced severe political backlash, both from within and outside INC, otherwise. Notwithstanding her decisions, it was impudent of her to continue to call the shots, yet not be at the centre stage to face repercussions. Cut to 2009 elections. There was high growth during the term of UPA during its first term in 2004-2009. The party won 206 seats; got 15.2% more votes than 2004. The party seemed to have come a long way from its days of crisis. There was a fresh breed of promising politicians, including Sachin Pilot, Jaiveer Shergill, Milind Deora, Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia who enjoyed youth support. Was INC finally coming of its own, breaking free from the clutches of dynasty politics? Unfortunately, it was not. Another Gandhi, who did not have to plod as a primary candidate to prove his mettle was being seen a potential forerunner as the party supremo. The mother-son duo was seen as the power centre, irrespective of who the official signatory was. Scams began to make the UPA II crumble. Sonia Gandhi refused to relent as the party swiftly slipped into crevices of corruption.
2014: Rahul Gandhi had not been able to make his mark as a 24 x 7 politician. He did not enjoy the support of the masses. His surname had started working against him. The fact that he had it easy in politics was not appreciated by many amongst today’s competitive youth, who believe in meritocracy as opposed to inheritance. With a talent pool that comprises of such eminent lawyers, bureaucrats, historians, economists, and political experts, it is an impending question, why has the INC decided to sabotage itself, by not willing to experiment with its organisational structure?
How different would INC’s fortunes be, if it decides to promote meritocracy and widen its realms of leadership? With political sharks like Narendra Modi and ambitious leaders like Nitish Kumar, does INC boast of the killer instinct? Can INC stand on its own, independent of its history? Will the young talent in INC be shadowed by the tradition of inheritance?
The nation has come a long way in these 69 years. Unfortunately, INC seems sluggish to embrace change. Party leaders are analogous to corporate leaders, who need to prove themselves on multiple fronts year after year to keep their offices intact. Public appraisals are critical to a political leader’s career. It is up to the INC to act on the appraisal or indulge in its own adulation.