There’s something odd about Sonia Gandhi’s politics. In the age of high visibility, the Congress president makes herself rare. She appears before the public once in five years. She stays in the shadows all the time and is everywhere yet nowhere in matters of the Congress and the UPA’s governance. She gets all the credit for the good things that the government does but is spared the flak when things turn uncomfortable. She survives criticism without responding to them.
With her phantom-like presence, Sonia does not lend herself to easy interpretations. It adds to her mystique. Maybe it’s deliberate; it helps her politics.
In all these years, the opposition has not gone beyond attacking her on a handful of issues — her foreign origin, the Quattrocchi connection and her remote controlling the government. These have lost lustre due to overuse. After being unceremoniously packed off from the Ramlila Maidan, Baba Ramdev sought to raise the issue of her foreign origin. It failed to create a ripple. In fact, nothing does in case of Sonia nowadays.
In the era of reaching out, public relations, image management, 24X7 television and spin masters, she presents a curious case. The credit – possibly a dubious one – should go to the Congress. The party has managed to create so much confusion around her persona – should we call it too many layers of protection? – that it’s difficult to get through to the actual Sonia Gandhi.
Take for example the post-midnight police crackdown on Ramdev’s camp. Replying to questions whether the Congress had authorised the government’s action, senior leader Kapil Sibal said, “Absolutely. Nothing happens without 100% support of the party.’’ Other senior leaders were of the similar opinion. Since the party involves Sonia Gandhi too, it meant she had a role in the unpopular decision. It could have attracted negative publicity and put her carefully cultivated image of a ‘recluse’ under threat.
The Congress moved into a swift damage control mission. Soon, there were media reports claiming Sonia’s disapproval of the police action. “Why could not the action wait till daylight?’’ “Why were women and children beaten up?’’ she is supposed to have asked. There’s no clear proof of what exactly she said at the Congress Core Committee meeting immediately after the Ramdev episode. But her image managers had done their job.
The obvious questions were given the miss. How is it possible that the party president was not in the loop? It’s a decision that was expected to raise lot of adverse publicity for a government that is already neck deep in scandals. It was a big political gamble. It needed the sanction of the highest authority.
Even if one buys ‘the Congress’ version of the developments around the crackdown, one question still goes a-begging. Why did the senior leaders claim initially that it was the party’s decision? It could mean two things —Sonia does not control the party and the government’s actions or somebody’s lying.
But the calculated double talk has served the party president well. There are no fingers raised at her at the moment. And she continues with her phantom-like presence. This has been a routine practice with the Congress since long. It does not enhance Sonia’s profile as a leader too much but it does not bring her stature down as a leader either.
There’s one lesson for all wannabe leaders here. Hogging media space does not mean much. You could use the media to your advantage by manipulating it carefully and sparsely. The BJP leaders should take special note.