Sonia Gandhi's unopposed election as Congress president not points to a woeful paucity of leadership material, it also underlines the disturbing presence of feudal characteristics which cannot be welcomed in a democracy, says Amulya Ganguli.
Sonia Gandhi's coronation as the Congress president for the fourth time in succession cannot be a matter of satisfaction either for her or her party. Not only does it point to a woeful paucity of leadership material in the organisation, it also underlines the disturbing presence of feudal characteristics which cannot be welcomed in a democracy.
Yet, it is clear that the party is caught in a trap. It has acquired such a cloying culture of sycophancy over the years that there is no question of anyone standing against her as the nonentity, Jitendra Prasad, did in the year 2000.
The Congress's predicament is all the greater because the 64-year-old Sonia is still young for a politician. At a time of increasing longevity, she can expect to be at the helm for a long time. But such a prolonged tenure can become increasingly embarrassing in a democracy. A lifelong presidency brings no credit to a party, especially one as old and venerable as the Congress.
Sonia's problem is that even if she yields place to someone else, the latter will still be regarded as her factotum. The only other person who will not be seen as totally subservient if he is made the president is Rahul Gandhi. But since he is apparently being groomed to replace Manmohan Singh as the prime minister in 2014, the Congress's one-man-one-post rule excludes him.
There was no alternative, however, for her when she took charge of the party in 1998. Only a Nehru-Gandhi could have saved it from the way it was losing all credibility under Sitaram Kesri, one of the most unprepossessing of persons in a party known for its charismatic leaders. There is little doubt she fulfilled the expectations of her party men as well as supporters, for the very next general election saw the Congress back in power.
Although virtually no one had foreseen such a development when the National Democratic Alliance under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not faring too badly, the Congress's return showed that large sections of the electorate had retained their faith in the party's accommodative policies and the secular credentials of its first family. The feeling among the marginalised and the minorities apparently was that with a Nehru-Gandhi at the top, all would be well. As such, all the motivated propaganda of the saffron crowd about her foreign origin made no impact.
Then, her master stroke of nominating Manmohan Singh as the prime minister killed two birds with one stone. While taking the sting out of the saffron camp's malicious campaign, it added the middle and upper class votes to the Congress's traditional kitty comprising the underprivileged and the minorities. So far, so good. But the pitfall of her success was that the Congress became even more of a one-person party than ever before.
Even in Indira Gandhi's time, there were a few who could hold their own despite her commanding position. Before she split the party for the second time in 1978, there were leaders like Y B Chavan, Swaran Singh, Jagjivan Ram, Siddhartha Ray, H N Bahuguna and others with her. Only after 1978 did the Congress become a party fully tied to her apron-strings. But, now, under Sonia, this unwholesome identification with a single individual looks like becoming a permanent feature.
What is odd, however, is that the Congress is not entirely devoid of talent at present. Nor can all of them be regarded as pushovers. Manmohan Singh, for instance, held his own during the controversy over the nuclear deal although Sonia was clearly not in its favour although Rahul was. P Chidambaram, too, is pursuing his hardline policies against the Maoists although the pinpricks from Digvijay Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar and others suggest there is a section within the party which is against it. Unless this group was sure that Sonia was not against their stance, they would not have dared to continue carping at the home minister.
However, none of them -- Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, Digvijay Singh -- has enough of a political base or popular support to be a chief who can hold the party together. The Congress has evolved in such a curious way that only a Nehru-Gandhi can keep it from disintegrating. It fell into this trap because of Lal Bahadur Shastri's untimely death. Had he lived, he would have been able to prove that there could be life for the party after Jawaharlal Nehru's death.
The fear evident in the phrase 'after Nehru, what?' which was in vogue in towards the end of Nehru's life would have been proved unfounded. Equally, the comparison of the first prime minister with a banyan tree because nothing grew under it would have also been proved untrue. But as fate would have it, only one and a half years after Nehru's death, his daughter became prime minister and made the party and the country become accustomed to always having a Nehru-Gandhi at the top.
The failure of the Congress's opponents also strengthened the perceived indispensability of the dynasty. The party's adversaries could not even utilise the family's disastrous folly of the Emergency of 1975-77 and enabled it to return in 1980 because of their political ineptitude. Then, the Janata Party botched its chances in 1989-90 with its Mandal misadventure, and the Bharatiya Janata Party failed to survive in office for more than one term because of what Vajpayee suspected was Narendra Modi's role during the Gujarat riots.
So, it was back to the Congress again. But it wasn't only the Congress which was favoured but, specifically, the dynasty because throughout the period when the BJP was in power, the popularity polls showed Sonia as second to Vajpayee by not many points.
Sonia, of course, is far less regal than her mother-in-law. But, then, the Congress today is weaker than what it was under Indira in 1971-72 and under Rajiv before the Bofors scandal. Besides, she cannot claim any major achievement on her part except for leading the party back to power after the interregnum of 1996-2004.
Her politics is also seemingly in a formative stage with an unappealing focus on remaining in power even if it means submitting to the Left's anti-American bias on the nuclear deal in UPA-I and the Mandal group's preference for including caste in the census data in UPA-II.
Mercifully, the nuclear deal went through because of Manmohan Singh's and Rahul's insistence. But the unforeseen political and social consequences of including caste in the census operations may prove to be her biggest blunder.
The other blunder may be the result of her left-of-centre instincts, which she has probably acquired from Indira's 'fake' socialism. Hence, the packing of the National Advisory Council with Maoist sympathisers. One can only hope that she hasn't acquired her mother-in-law's authoritarian instincts as well. Since Sonia is expected to remain as the Congress president in the foreseeable future, an occasion may arise either to prove or disprove this fear.