Sonia Gandhi’s strength was that she knew her weakness, as well as her strength, when she took over leadership of the party. She knew that the party needed her as a figurehead around whom to rally and proved that point with dramatic effect with her resignation, soon after she was elected party president and the foreign-origin challenge by Pawar, Sangma and Tariq Anwar, to be wooed back by party leaders with voluble penitence. But she knew that she did not know how to run the party and was willing to take the advice of the Congress panchandrums. She had conviction and clarity on two things on her own: India must stay secular and the Congress had to lead the fight against majoritarianism; and her son, Rahul Gandhi, must take over leadership of the party and, if possible, of the country, some day. For the rest, the party leaders could guide her.
This was in sharp contrast to the disdain for party’s entrenched elite displayed by Rajiv Gandhi, who derided them as powerbrokers. They returned the favour, standing aside and watching the fun as the prime minister with the largest majority in India’s electoral history was hounded out of domestic effectiveness by the Opposition and dissidents, who branded him a thief and got him defeated in the next general elections. Rajiv Gandhi learned the dynamics of the Congress and was prepared to lead the party again in 1991, when he was assassinated.
Rahul Gandhi, anointed general secretary and then vice-president of the Congress, also displayed the same confusion that had done his father in, of leadership with office. His half-baked experiments with internal elections in the student and youth wings of the party, and his decision to appoint people of his choosing as state level party presidents, ignoring actual leadership, made him look a chump even within the party, quite apart from the social media campaign mounted by the Sangh Parivar to ridicule him and brand him a pappu.
Sonia had no such confusion. Like a good Indian bahu, who enters her husband’s household kicking and screaming on the inside against its alien culture and its demands, sternly supervised by the mother-in-law, but, over time, grows into their champion and channel of continuity, she set herself to the task of getting the Congress back on its feet, after its defeat in 1996 under Narasimha Rao’s leadership and drift under Sitaram Kesri’s.
The people of India voted the Vajpayee-led NDA out of power, and Sonia Gandhi and her lieutenants cobbled together a coalition and a Common Minimum Programme with the Left, to form the first UPA government. Having heard the bitter resonance of her foreign origins within the precincts of high office, she wisely decided to pursue the long-term goal of preserving the seat of power for her son and chose a technocrat and assured political non-entity to become prime minister.
Manmohan Singh was a conscientious and dutiful prime minister and exercised his delegated authority sparingly. There are structural limits to a PM’s authority and autonomy within a coalition. But Dr Singh rarely explored those limits. The lone occasion when he stood his ground and fought within the party and the broader alliance for a matter of conviction was when the Indo-US nuclear deal was getting derailed. He knew its strategic importance for India, how it could release India from the technology denial regime its nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998 had got the country into. Sonia Gandhi backed Manmohan Singh to the hilt: without her unflinching support, the Congress would have opted to let the deal go by and keep the allies happy.
Many credit Sonia’s innovation of the National Advisory Council for some vital rights-based laws brought in by the UPA that did much to advance democracy and redistribute the income generated by fast growth from its immediate beneficiaries to those who had been left out of its munificence: the Right to Information, the Employment Guarantee scheme, the Forest Rights Act, the Food Security Act, the enabling legislation for the Right to Education introduced by the Vajpayee government. The NAC represented a live link between activists and intellectuals working to better society outside the government framework and the state. Many saw it favourably. This was a mistake.
What outsourcing emancipatory imagination to the NAC achieved, in effect, was to fray, if not break, the link, within the party, between the pursuit of power and engagement with to what end the power so pursued was to be deployed. It is this engagement that keeps a party a meaningful agency of democracy, mediating between the state and the people, to make the state work for the people. Once that link is broken, the party does become a bunch of people pursuing power for the sake of power.
The first term of the UPA and the first 18 months of its second term saw India achieve remarkable progress. Rural roads multiplied. Construction across the land drew in farm labour, raising rural wages for eight consecutive years. A global commodity boom allowed the government to raise support prices for grain. Poverty fell by 20 percentage points. The share of the workforce engaged in agriculture came down below 50%. Urbanisation gained pace, along the new highways that were built. Public private partnerships undertook largescale infrastructure projects, such as the Delhi and Mumbai airports, the Delhi-Agra expressway, mega power projects and new townships, raising the share of fixed capital formation in GDP to 38%, from where it has fallen to below 27% today.
Aviation expanded, capacity in international flights increased to keep pace with the demands of globalising India’s frenetic toing and froing. Maternal and infant mortality plummeted. Tribal existence within forests got decriminalised. School enrolment rose to cover the entire target population at the primary level. Installed power generation capacity more than doubled. Tele-density soared, including in rural areas. A national broadband plan was developed, to connect 250,000 panchayats with optical fibre, but got off to a slow start in the post-2011 period of policy paralysis. A national skill mission was launched, with industry-specific skill councils, a National Skill Development Corporation and a national commission with industry grandees to guide the project.
The Sensex rose fivefold before the global financial crisis dragged it down, only to resume its upward trajectory. The National Payments Corporation was formed in 2008 and got working in 2009, to create the electronic backbone of financial inclusion and mobile banking. Banks were directed to open rural branches and open no-frills accounts. The government conceived of the Unique Identity Project and began direct benefit transfer to beneficiary bank accounts. Deregulation and de-subsidisation of petrol, diesel and cooking gas were kicked off. New kinds of banks and banking licences were conceptualised.
Indians prospered. Many joined the club of dollar billionaires. Middleclass Indians joined the social media revolution. And used it to vent their anger against pervasive corruption. Sonia Gandhi-led UPA created a large, vocal population that was well-off enough to worry about things other than subsistence, corruption, for instance, and had the technological means of mobilising themselves against the corrupt: TV and social media. The Congress and its alliance became the primary targets of their ire. The party was routed in the 2014 elections.
As corruption charges mounted against the UPA government, its leadership sat paralysed, with weak defence and no counter offensive. Mamata Banerjee broke away, Pranab Mukherjee went off to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The core committee that led the government, comprising Manmohan Singh, AK Antony and Ahmed Patel besides Sonia Gandhi and the finance minister of the day never exhibited the political instinct to use the machinery of the state against its political opponents or against unscrupulously hostile sections of the media. The nation appeared leaderless, as Manmohan Singh sat quiet, disengaged from Congress politics, reduced to a hapless target of vicious attacks from the media and the Opposition. This drift continued from early 2011 to end 2012, during which time the government lost the plot. Sonia Gandhi was not able to give the party and the government it led the leadership they needed to fight back.
Sonia Gandhi styled herself after her late mother-in-law in the way in which she dressed and walked. But she did not have Indira’s capacity to wield power with cold-blooded precision. Sonia did not disturb even one successful chief minister; Indira had six chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh in a five-year term. This allowed for political continuity but also for stagnation in second-rung leadership. Blame Assamese leader Himanta Biswa Sarma’s defection to the BJP on Sonia-Rahul’s reluctance to replace a timeworn Tarun Gogoi, even as the entire state unit knew that the Congress’ last assembly victory was the handiwork of Sarma.
Sonia Gandhi’s name was to her advantage. Had she been called Zoe or Miranda, she would have been deemed more foreign than the vaguely Indian sounding Sonia warranted. She was impeccably decent in her personal conduct, although Natwar Singh and ML Fotedar had reason to believe otherwise.
Two things stand out in the failure of the UPA and the Congress. While the government did considerable good work, the party and its leaders, particularly Manmohan Singh, failed to communicate their success effectively to the people. The same fixed line broadband connectivity project that began in 2011 and has been rolling out since then was called NoFN, for National Optical Fibre Network, under the UPA, and Bharat Net by Modi. UPA’s skills programme was called NSDP, Modi dubbed it Skill India. No-frill accounts became Jan Dhan. The superb spread of mobile telephony under the UPA was knows as a scam, but is Digital India under Modi. And Dr Manmohan Singh, who was heard attentively at G20 summits, was as eager to tell his people what his government has achieved as a dead fish.
The other major failure of the UPA led by Sonia Gandhi was project secularism. The setting up of the Sarkaria Commission to locate the status of the Muslim across the country was a sound move. Instead of presenting Muslims as a subaltern group just above Dalits, as per the findings of the Commission, deserving of remedial attention, the UPA government’s attempt to woo Muslims, under which prime minister Manmohan Singh declared that Muslims had the first claim on the nation’s resources, had the BJP crying communal appeasement and the nation nodding in agreement. In fact, Manmohan Singh had added “and other deprived sections” in his allocation of the first claim on the nation’s resources, but the damage was done. While Sonia and Manmohan Singh held Iftaar for Muslim gentry, police forces across the country routinely rounded up young Muslim men whenever any bomb went off anywhere and locked them up for a decade or more, only to be released on not guilty verdicts, after prolonged incarceration had robbed them of their prime years, faith in the system and their health. The UPA’s secularism sounded hollow then, both to its opponents and to its purported beneficiaries. Of course, in contrast to the vigilante attacks and the majoritarian colouring of public culture today, some people could still miss the UPA brand of secularism.
Sonia Gandhi’s term as Congress president began when the party was out of power, and has ended, after 19 long years, when her party sits in the Opposition. She has handed over the party’s reins to her son. Mission accomplished, almost. She will retire fully from politics, hoping to see her son hold the nation’s reins as well.