Which politician isn’t afraid of Sonia Gandhi?

Drawing room conversations and television wars don’t count
Which politician isn’t afraid of Sonia Gandhi?
Which politician isn’t afraid of Sonia Gandhi?
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Two unrelated events have prompted the writing of this post. One, a book released earlier this week by the “strongman” of Maharashtra, former cabinet minister Sharad Pawar who complained that he was outsmarted by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, abruptly ending his prime-ministerial ambitions. The burden of his peeve seems to be that Ms. Gandhi preferred a more pliable and docile P.V. Narasimha Rao compared to his daring self.  The reader does not know what to believe – the strongman or the strong lady, but the dice is currently rolling in favour of the latter.  The lady rarely speaks,   courtiers do the honours.

But she broke from tradition and allowed a peek into her strength when, also this week, she went full throttle to assert that the high profile National Herald case, currently making it’s way through India’s courts, drawing rooms and New Delhi’s streets, is political vendetta against her and her son Rahul Gandhi. Then came the clincher. Ms. Gandhi also reminded India that she is the daughter-in-law of the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This is presumably a reference to nerves of steel and self-preservation and when push comes to shove, things more draconian like the suspension of human rights and civil liberties when the mother-in-law declared Emergency 40 years ago. We don’t know and that seems to be okay too. As a nation, we have got used to living in the “don’t know” zone or as an economist once said, the forever - orange mode.  Green or red mean decisions, actions and accountability. Ms. Gandhi has power without accountability like thousands of Indian politicians except that they do not have a brand name and some may have had to earn their spurs. It takes time and money to build brands and win election. The Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka just explained that cost-benefit analysis. 

Beyond the current drama and burlesque (why did she not call herself Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, wondered one spark) here is a fact that will irritate, annoy and perhaps even entertain. The grand lines of the story of 1.27 billion Indians has been sketched by the Nehru-Gandhi family for over six decades and by all indications, Ms. Gandhi is not throwing in the towel yet. The not very formally educated lady born into a modest Italian family in Lusiana and raised in Orbasanno, hamlets tucked in the northern region of Italy, seems in control of the levers of the world’s largest democracy despite a serious drubbing in the last general elections in 2014.  She is already the longest serving leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) though not the tallest, and thereby hangs the tale of a country where talk is cheap and action dear. Generations of Congress leaders have stood in line waiting to occupy some high office and many of their children have also joined their fathers and in some cases grandfathers, neatly arranged by progeny, not merit. That’s how the Congress party has worked – why should they change especially since their model is widely emulated? In the south, ticket seekers split their veins or threaten to immolate themselves to get their leaders’ attention. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not yet been struck by massive family fiefdoms, but they have not been in power long enough.  The same is not true for their allies though, some of whom opened their family innings a while ago.

Scholarship or erudition has never been the bulwark of Indian politics. Not for us, the stimulating debates of other parliamentary democracies we emulate. Ours is more driven by epithets and anecdotes than by stirring speeches and riveting repartee. We throw chairs and slippers, paperweights and pens when losing an argument. Ms. Gandhi has been called many names – high command, cold and calculating, conniving etc. - but they have all fallen by the wayside as she grows from strength to strength. As for anecdotes, they may not stand up to scientific enquiry but they provide valuable insight. Connected is the new euphemism in the corridors of power for the compromised. A private dinner Sharad Pawar had did him in, a file that made a detour via Ms. Gandhi’s office before reaching Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has finger-prints or the tiresome documentary evidence and endless tantrums thrown by state leaders in south India all point to one thing – Ms. Gandhi is a politician par excellence and she has managed to survive and thrive in an environment that must make poison taste like apple juice.

This is an environment where the Chief Minister of New Delhi Arvind Kejriwal can call the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi a “psychopath” or a parliament where a leader named Sharad Yadav can pass sexist remarks about his women colleagues while others many others give short shrift to decorum and decency. From West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee to Uttar Pradesh’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, from Tamil Nadu’s Karunanidhi, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, Karnataka’s Siddaramaiah and Kerala’s Oomen Chandy, none have ever dared to question Ms. Gandhi other than an occasional quip totally unbecoming of serious leaders. Many do not even dare to take her name, happy with calling her Madamji. One Karnataka Chief Minister is famed to leave her presence in reverse gear as a mark of respect to the hallowed deity.

Gandhi’s street sense ensures that women and men of high learning, kings and queens, heads of state and government, journalists, business-heads etc. pay obeisance to her whether her government is in power or out of it. When she made what many of her courtiers called a “supreme sacrifice” by not becoming India’s prime minister (a legal obstacle stopped her back then in 2004), many Congress leaders wept.   Undeterred, Ms.Gandhi foisted Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister walking over many hopefuls and ignoring protests from sulking Congress leaders. She also managed to keep the ramshackle party and many alliance partners together and went on to win a second mandate in 2009.

When fools and stupid people rise to the top of a political party, the problem is with the party, not the fool. If felons and thieves, murderers and rapists decorate our political spectrum, it is a reflection on us, not on all of the above. You can understand merit and what it can attain, but how do we explain Ms. Gandhi’s power except via Delhi’s favorite line ‘I have a file on you’? How is one to understand why Prime Minister Narendra Modi who came out of nowhere like Ms. Gandhi (but unlike her earned his spurs) become India’s elected leader of government is unable to cut to chase, push through reforms, create jobs, introduce accountability, deal with corruption – the list is long.

Unfortunately, the BJP never very adept at promoting its work now thinks managing the media in Delhi with one liners and first year college debates is a full-time job. How else can it explain the poor connect with people who voted it to power just the other day? A Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Bannerjee without forgetting Lalu Prasad Yadav joining hands with Gandhi is a formidable line up for 2019. They may think they have a plan to outwit Ms. Gandhi, in which case Sharad Pawar’s book and other tomes that preceded it is required reading.

As for India in all this - well, we are used to remaining forever orange. Red or green may now even seem intolerant!

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