When she speaks, which happens once in a blue moon, Sonia Gandhi talks sense. Her speech writers take extreme care to make sure that she appears balanced in her views on the Congress, on issues, the government and the rest of the world. The words are measured and designed not to stoke controversies. The speeches are cautionary in nature, mostly wake-up calls to the party. Sometimes they carry the hint of a warning.
They supposedly serve to galvanise the party cadre and leaders and bring to heel members tending to go astray. If that’s the case, why doesn’t she do it more often? Probably, it has to do with the calculated move from her spinmeisters to guard her mystique. The rarer she is, by way of appearances and communication, the more inscrutable she is. The more inscrutable she is, the more people tend to be confused about the ‘real’ her. They end up giving her the benefit of the doubt as a leader.
It has worked in her favour so far. But not for the Congress or the government her party heads. Her intervention to defend the government when it was lurching from one crisis to another over the last two years was been rare and half-hearted. So have been her efforts to revive the party which is shrinking across the country. We have not seen tough action, drastic changes or any fresh ideas from the Congress president. Neither has she done anything notable to contain the sense of drift in the party and the government so far.
If her address to party MPs today was to change the perception that she was a hand off leader, rather aloof from the affairs of the party and the government, it should be good news for the party. But does it come a little too in the day? The answer is yes. Her intervention should have come earlier, much before the party suffered seemingly irreversible damage in states and during the period the government stood pilloried against attack on all fronts.
She batted forcefully for the government, saying, “It seems to be almost fashionable these days to criticise the government. We must not allow this to deflect us. We must speak forcefully and with confidence on what we have achieved and there is much we have to show despite difficult economic times.” And had strong words on the conduct of party leaders: “We must all shed all manner of factional behaviour, and fight as one disciplined team at all levels. That will be the single-most important factor to decide whether we win or lose.”
The party would hope it is not one of her routine speeches. But if there’s a note of urgency in it, it is not difficult to fathom why. Important states like Karnataka and Gujarat go to vote later this year. If the party performs badly here, it would be ominous signs for the party for 2014 general elections. The Congress has already performed badly in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab and any more loss in big states would mean its chances of retaining power in 2014 would be bleak.
She would also be aware that Rahul Gandhi has not delivered well in states despite all his efforts. He is the only star campaigner for the party and his cameo appearances in election-bound states have not helped. To make the situation worse, the party still does not have a crop of leaders who could serve as the face of the party in different regions. The Congress is either too apprehensive of new leaders or is incapable of producing the. Whatever the reality, the task is cut out for Sonia.
If the party has to perform well electorally, she has to lead it from the front. What works to her advantage is she is still the biggest leader of the country by virtue of being the chief of the biggest party. Her presence still enthuses party workers. The Congress has lost space nationally but no other party has been smart enough to occupy the vacant political space. She can regain the space if she stops being the backroom player.
This would call for a change of image. She cannot hold on to her ‘mystique’ and be active in leadership at the same time. She has to make a choice. The routine speeches and words of warning won’t work anymore.