From fighting over imported dog biscuits with her sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi to leading a nation of a billion-plus people, the Italian-born Congress president Sonia Gandhi has indeed come a long way.
Peruse the many credible accounts and anecdotes about Sonia Gandhi and you can’t but admire the manner in which this woman has re-invented herself over the decades. Especially the decades since the assassination of her husband and ex-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, when she was thrown centre-stage into the rough and tumble of Indian politics.
In her book Durbar, journalist Tavleen Singh tells us the story of the imported dog biscuits, told to her by Akbar Ahmed, ‘Dumpy’, described as 'Sanjay Gandhi's best friend'. This was from the days of the Emergency in Indira Gandhi's household where Sonia and Maneka lived with their late husbands and Sonia was in her late 20s. In Tavleen Singh's words: "This is how Akbar told the story. ‘Yaar, can you imagine anyone getting upset because some dog biscuits got eaten by the wrong dog? What happened was that Maneka saw these biscuits in the fridge and fed them to her dogs and Sonia had a screaming fit. Then Rajiv started screaming too and it was all very unpleasant. Apparently they were imported dog biscuits or something. But, they were just dog biscuits, yaar’."
Now fast-forward to three decades later and look at a sharply contrasting account presented by Vinod Mehta in his autobiography, Lucknow Boy: A Memoir. Mehta who had a few personal interactions with Sonia Gandhi saw in her a smart, intelligent and capable woman. He found Sonia to be "singularly well-informed about what is going on in her own party and other parties- even the titbits and the private lives of persons she has appointed to high office."
According to him, she is no goongi gudiya (dumb doll) but a person with a formidable grasp of "the ins and outs of national politics" and a realist who could be "brutally objective".
In Mehta's words, Sonia shows grace—something that even Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma would vouch for—and has taken "extra care to ensure that Manmohan Singh is never seen to be undermined by her". That, she is dictatorial only when she wants to be firm but otherwise prefers a "consensus approach" with senior party colleagues on matters of importance.
At the end of nine years of the Congress-led UPA government, what’s noteworthy about Sonia Gandhi’s leadership is the initiative to create the National Advisory Council (NAC) to give civil society an access to policy-making. Also noteworthy are policy interventions such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act which originated in the NAC have shown results.
The other major policy measures such as the Right to Education Act, the Food Security Bill, the Aadhar-based cash transfers and the land acquisition bill, are lofty in their objectives but face the challenge of implementation and delivery.
Undoubtedly, the UPA has its can of worms: Using deceit and subterfuge, this ruling coalition tricked Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal movement into failure, although part of the responsibility for failure also lay with the movement’s leadership.
The government has been embarrassed by a series of corruption scams, and it is heartening that the government has been taken to task by statutory bodies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the courts on the 2G spectrum scam, Coalgate, Railgate or corruption in the Commonwealth Games. However, attacking the UPA on corruption won’t help the BJP beyond a point because corruption is a socio-political malaise in India and every sector of Indian society is part of the corruption culture. It is only when Indian society is adequately nauseated with corruption that we will begin to see a glimmer of hope in the form of a solution.
The BJP on its part has failed to present alternative ideas, plans and programmes that are inspiring and inclusive. All it has done is to prop up Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the party’s promise of good governance. But Modi continues to carry the taint of failure in curbing the 2002 Godhra communal rioting.
The growth story in India is divided between those demanding faster economic reforms and aggressive growth versus those from civil society emphasizing on inclusive growth and food security for the poor. Economic growth without employment or food security is absolutely meaningless for a poor nation such as ours and Sonia Gandhi has the potential to strike a balance between the two.
It is an historical accident of extraordinary proportions that a foreigner married into a powerful Indian family is now leading India. If there is one person more powerful than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today then it is Sonia Gandhi.
It may sound bitter and ironical for Indians, but the fact is that her foreign origin comes as an asset to Sonia Gandhi because she is not burdened by the baggage of caste and cultural dogma. By interacting closely with members of the civil society she has shown greater sensitivity to the real problems faced by India and is indeed placed in a position where she can make a difference.
After all, who wants a Pawan Kumar Bansal who worships a goat as a last-ditch attempt to save his ministership? Or a Sushma Swaraj who threatens to invoke the regressive Hindu practice of a woman shaving her head as a mark of mourning?