The education of Sonia Gandhi: There's an urban middle class

For those not endowed with periscope vision, the high walls of the Delhi durbar perhaps interfere with their ability to gaze into the middle distance and get an eyeful of the real India that lies beyond the diwan-e-khas. Their perspective on the great beyond gets shaped by the filters that their courtiers deploy to shield the royalty from the lively agitations that bestir the aam janata. "All is well, madam," you can readily imagine them telling the Queen Mother. "The potato crop yield is at an all-time high, and the joyous masses are singing and dancing on the streets."

Those on the outside, too,  have no way of getting to know the minds of the rulers: those same high walls serve just as adequately to keep out prying eyes, and since the Heaven-Born are not given to talking directly to the dirty, unwashed masses - or even to media intermediaries of the modern age - one searches in vain for elucidation on the thought processes that underlie the policy orientations that determine the fate of a billion-plus Indians.

Occasions such as the one on Friday, when Sonia Gandhi addressed a Congress party retreat intended to introspect on the party's current place in the political universe, therefore, offer a rare glimpse into the mental make-up of She Who Must Be Obeyed and the real power behind the throne. And what Sonia Gandhi's speech revealed is that she is actually rather more aware of the perturbations of the  common folk than we had imagined. Either her courtiers are less censorial than we had imagined - or, as is more likely, the roars and tumults outside the palace walls have reached such a high decibel level that it is impossible for the palace inmates to ignore while slicing their Canestrato Pugliese.

Sonia Gandhi peeks outside the palace walls - and sees the middle class. AFP

For instance, Sonia Gandhi acknowledged that the "middle class" and the youth, particularly in urban and semi-urban pockets of India, were increasingly getting restive and wanted to be heard by the political parties.  They  were deploying something called the "social media" and the Internet using  computers  and smartphones, and were interfering with the traditional channels of top-down propagandist communication that had worked so well for the Congress.

This is a revelation of no mean significance. It is the first ever acknowledgement from Sonia Gandhi that she even recognises the existence of a constituency of people who make up the "middle class" or that they are aspirational and are having a parallel political conversation - and therefore don't necessarily buy the claptrap that they've thus far been force-fed. And although Sonia Gandhi did not  say as much, it is manifestly clear that her sensitisation to the existence of this political constituency owes much to the recent formulation about an aspirational "neo middle class" that a certain leader of an Indian State (who shall not be named) invoked with resounding success.

The Congress has in recent times been signalling a more earnest effort among its youth cadres to embrace the social media - where, it finds, its voice doesn't acquire adequate amplification. But it is also evident that for all its endeavour to harness the "echo chamber" effect of social media platforms, its media managers just don't get it. Political conversations on social media platforms are by their very nature freewheeling - and even borderline anarchic; it just happens that the constituency of the political right in India has a disproportionately high representation on social media platforms. Attempts, such as those by Congress media managers, to steer the conversation in way that works to the party's advantage reflect an old-world top-down mindset that is ill-suited to the specificities of the medium.

In any case, coming from a party that heads the government that has over the past two years done its damnedest to crack down on social media with disquieting encroachments on freedom of expression, the sudden embrace of these platforms reeks of cynicism and me-too earnestness.

In any case, the Congress' communication strategy is hopelessly flawed even discounting the impact of the social media. What can one say of a party whose top three leaders - Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi - hide behind  palace walls particularly at moments of high political intensity and whose low frequency of unscripted public articulations  would make even reclusive Trappist monks seem positively garrulous...

There's just one other point that Sonia Gandhi made in her speech on Friday that is worthy of consideration. She made no direct allusion to the wave of corruption scandals that have besieged the UPA government, but mentioned it tangentially by exhorting Congress leaders to be less ostentatious with their lifestyles. Conspicuous consumption, particularly in the celebration of weddings and birthdays of political leaders, gave rise to questions about where the money was coming from, she said.

Well, Mrs Gandhi, the answer is self-evident. It comes from cosy "sweetheart deals" that those in politics (and occasionally those on the periphery) sign on for.  Just ask your son-in-law Robert Vadra: he can speak with authority on the subject.