Claims of "interview of the decade" were a little rich for what seemed more like a teaser for a photo exhibition on Indira Gandhi's life on her 99th birth anniversary but even among that vanilla script and candy floss questions, Sonia Gandhi amply demonstrated why the Congress party looks thoroughly out of tune with present times.
Speaking to India Today's Rajdeep Sardesai at Swaraj Bhavan, Nehru-Gandhi family’s ancestral home in Allahabad, the usually reticent Congress president exuded the same sense of speaking from a pedestal that has so alienated the party from the electorate. In some ways, the problem is intrinsic to the Congress which has become synonymous with a dynasty. It must hark back to its illustrious past since it has little to offer by way of future.
Since there seemed to be some sort of prior understanding between the interviewer and the interviewee that questions would remain Indira-centric — part of Congress's buildup ahead of the former Prime Minister's 100th birth anniversary next year — a lot of the exchanges were limited to Sonia's personal equation with her mother-in-law. But even as she tried to humanise and soften the hard edges of Indira's persona and politics, Sonia let slip the arrogant positioning of Congress brand.
To a question how the young generation would see and evaluate her mother-in-law, Sonia said: "As a woman who was completely and totally devoted to her people, who was willing to give her everything, including giving up her life for the people of the country."
"Gandhi sacrifice" has been a recurrent theme in Congress politics over the years. While it may have resonated with the electorate in the 80s and the 90s, for the post-liberalisation generation this trope carries little sense or value. In a modern democratic polity, the leader is expected to lead from the front like the CEO of a company, not "sacrifice" his or her life for the nation.
It represents the image of a benevolent 'mai-baap sarkar' that treats citizens as subjects and showers largesse and beneficence and in return, demands absolute loyalty. It is completely out of sync with the notion of a government and the electorate being equal partners in nation-building. That the Congress seems unable to come off the trappings of "self-sacrifice" as a way of doing politics should tell us something about their trajectory into political oblivion.
Despite the bravado and forced confidence about the future of Congress, Sonia's comments also revealed an insecurity and a dilemma that she suffers as the outgoing president and the mother of a leader who appears destined for perennial apprenticeship. While talking about Congress being synonymous with dynasty politics, Sonia offered that just like progenies of a family of doctors or business empires follow the footsteps of their predecessors, her family too followed the path of the head of the family.
"Just like in a family of doctors, professor business one or another will choose the path of the father. There is a difference in politics as in politics you are elected and defeated democratically," said Sonia.
That the Congress president would fall back on a false equivalence to make a case for Rahul's foray in politics is interesting because elsewhere in the interview, Sonia repeatedly says that neither did she want to be in politics, nor did she want her husband to follow the footsteps of his mother. She even went to the extent of saying that Indira Gandhi herself never wanted to be in politics. Rahul Gandhi's reference to power as a poisoned chalice is well known. Taken together, one gets the impression of a family that has a deeply complex relationship with power. The members feel compelled to drink from the chalice despite an ominous foreboding.
That may explain why Rahul fits easily into the armour of a reluctant general, but equally, it doesn't justify why Sonia would continue to make the case for her son to be in politics. One can only deduce that the Congress president fully understands that the weight of the surname is the only glue to keep the party from falling apart.
One expected a few questions on 2G, CWG, Coalgate scams or even a passing mention of Robert Vadra but all we got was one oblique reference to Emergency where even the interrogator seemed too embarrassed to press the point.
Sonia's answer was equally evasive. She revealed that Indira Gandhi was "uneasy" about the Emergency. "I cannot say how she would see Emergency today, but if she had not felt extremely uncomfortable she would not have called for elections."
It seems rather odd that Indira Gandhi let her conscience bite her for 21 long months before she decided to test her fate at the electoral hustings. History would beg to differ.