Sonia Gandhi completed her stint as Congress President on December 15. Her presidency of the Congress will be an interesting and important chapter when the modern-day history of the party and the nation would be written.
Gandhi had two occasions to become the Prime Minister of the country but she discreetly avoided them. Congressmen may call it renunciation but suffice to say that Gandhi knew the limits of her abilities.
The first chance was immediately after the death of Rajiv Gandhi. She was too shocked and in mourning. “I lost my anchor and my support. It was many years later that I could emerge from my shell,” she has said in her public address recently.
Her second chance to become PM came when the UPA secured the mandate in 2004, when she anointed Manmohan Singh as PM. But between the end of Narasimha Rao’s stint as PM and party chief and the UPA triumph, Congress went through the worst phase in its history till then.
“ Only when I came to feel that the Congress was facing a crisis, and that communal forces were gaining strength, did I feel compelled to respond to the call of the party workers. I felt that my turning away from this summons would negate the sacrifice of my mother-in-law's life and my husband's life. So I entered politics, to fulfil a duty to my family, party and country,” Sonia Gandhi said while recalling the incident in her final address as Congress President.
Critics may call her ‘response to party workers’ as her ambition to see her son becoming the PM. However, there is no denying the fact that Sonia Gandhi played the biggest role in reviving her party by being its anchor.
Starting with just three state governments, and without power at the Centre, Gandhi listened to all senior advisers of her party in her effort to get the Congress back on its feet. She campaigned tirelessly for the party too. There was a joke among Congressmen that Gandhi went by the advice given by the last person she talked to because she was equally impressed by whoever made whatever arguments and did not have the discretion to tell what was better for the party.
However, such critics were silenced by Congress’ return to power in 2004. After the Congress dithered during the anti-corruption movement during UPA 2’s stint, the party suffered its worst defeat in 2014. Gandhi leaves her party in a state worse than when she took over. Her party may have come a full circle back to 1996-98. But had it not been for her, ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’ may have happened long before Narendra Modi’s arrival on the national stage.
I would not want to get into hindsight analyses on how and why BJP won the Gujarat assembly elections because I do not wish to join the list of people who have already done that on television and print over the week. Also for the simple reason that I had said in the November 6 issue that despite best efforts of the Opposition, the BJP would scrape through given Gujarat’s priorities and obsessions.
But I am amused at a particular statement that BJP National President Amit Shah made after BJP’s win. He said that the BJP tally in Gujarat slid because Congress indulged in ‘crass campaign’.
That is an indirect admission that Amit Shah, and by extension BJP, believes crass campaigning can reduce the number of seats political opponents can win. Since the motive of a political party is to win an election ‘at all costs’ and since Shah thinks crass campaigns can bring down seats of opponents, it is only logical to conclude BJP believes in crass campaigns to win elections.
BJP and its sympathisers — who I am now convinced consist only of people who have a pathological hatred towards minorities, Muslims in particular — will never admit this. They would say the BJP aims only for ‘everyone’s development’.
‘ Vikas’ is the key word that has been bandied around for three four years now as BJP’s slogan. Let’s see exactly the ‘vikas themes’ that dominated BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign in Gujarat:
‘ Hardik Patel Sex CDs’, ‘Congress-Aurangazeb’, ‘Mani Shankar Aiyar has given contract to Pakistan’, ‘Manmohan Singh plotted a coup against Modi with Pakistan's help’, ‘Pakistan wants a Muslim CM’, ‘Choose between Rupani-Amit-Modi (RAM) vs Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh (HAJ)’, ‘Congress must say whether it wants Mandir or Masjid’ ‘Congress has reached final task of Blue Whale game, which will be over on December 18.’ They sum up the mind-set of the BJP-RSS and all its supporters, wherever in the world they are.
The winner hardly took it all in Gujarat this time and there was no dearth of people in Opposition who were given credit for their skills and strategies. But here’s an unsung hero:
Gujarat Congress was in tatters after Shankersinh Vaghela walked out of the party a few months ahead of the assembly elections. While Rahul Gandhi, who has to take the blame for the party’s debacle, has been given the credit, a low-profile leader in the Congress helped in almost overturning the verdict.
And that was Ashok Gehlot, who was appointed General Secretary of poll-bound Gujarat some time ago. Gehlot worked with all the three youth agitators who were leading parallel movements against the establishment in Gujarat. He stitched up alliances with them and tribal leader Vasava and ensured that there was minimum split in anti-incumbency votes. Of course, the Nationalist Congress Party with Praful Patel’s compulsions of indirectly supporting the BJP and BSP managed to win some votes and help BJP win several marginal seats.
But the likes of Aam Aadmi Party could do little to help BJP this time. Gehlot toiled hard to put in place a grassroots mechanism to ensure that the Congress had polling agents in every booth to prevent absentee voters’ ballots being cast with the help of conniving Election Commission staff. This reportedly happened as recently as in municipal elections in Uttar Pradesh, according to several ordinary voters.
Gehlot was ably guided and supported in his task by Ahmed Patel. Hopefully, Rahul Gandhi would realise that these are not ‘old nuisance’ but ‘crafty veterans’ who know the grammar of real politick and would tap their potential in grooming his youth brigade. If he has understood the roles these veterans played, he would no longer see a ‘youth versus old guard’ debate but work towards a smooth and fruitful transition in his party. Like it or not, the future of a pluralistic democracy depends on the future of Congress.
(Published on 26th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 52)