by Abhay Vaidya
Having won over Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and silenced vitriolic Trinamool Congress president Mamata Banerjee on the issue of choosing a presidential candidate, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has added that much more power to her enigmatic image.
No one really knows the details of the deal she struck with Mulayam Singh in the secret meetings that completely changed the equation in the presidential race. After initially supporting Mamata’s preference for a second presidential term for APJ Abdul Kalam, Mulayam Singh changed tracks and the Trinamool Congress chief suddenly stood isolated. This was the turning point in the thirteenth president of India electoral race that led the Congress to promptly anoint finance minister Pranab Mukherjee as the UPA’s candidate for the post.
Mamata was left smarting but not before she had let loose a cat among the pigeons by suggesting that Manmohan Singh had outlived his utility as prime minister and should be replaced.
There’s one set of aspirants for the presidential chair and many hopefuls, within and outside the Congress, for the coveted prime minister’s post. Sonia Gandhi occupies that position in Indian politics today where, almost at the flick of her fingers, she can change the prime minister.
The decade that began in 2004 after Manmohan Singh was chosen as prime minister under UPA-1 is most fascinating because of the presence and personality of Sonia Gandhi. Never before in post-Independent Indian history have we seen a situation where the most powerful person in the country does not hold any constitutional post. The highest point that Indira Gandhi could rise to was prime minister and here you have her daughter-in-law of Italian origin occupying a position higher than that.
Should we then not accept that Sonia and her inner circle have created this super-centre of authority which never existed before in Indian history? An entirely new lexicon has emerged in Indian politics where it is Sonia Gandhi and her core team that have a decisive influence on critical matters facing the country; policies and programmes of the government. The flip side is that if things go wrong- as they have with the economic reforms programme and the economy- Sonia remains untouched and it is Manmohan Singh who takes the hit. All that Team Anna could do was to escalate its attack on the UPA and not spare even the prime minister- they couldn’t go higher than that.
None of the scams of the UPA have touched Sonia as she has the luxury of calling the shots without any executive accountability. Indian politics has perhaps given Sonia a far better deal than what her Emergency-tainted mother-in-law and Bofors-scarred husband got. Even the towering Jawaharlal Nehru was held accountable for the 1962 Chinese debacle and for unnecessarily making the Kashmir issue an international one by taking it to the United Nations.
So while she is credited with promoting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005 and the Right to Information Act, 2005, what policy or programme will Sonia Gandhi be held accountable for?
And yet, who was Sonia Gandhi just two decades ago? An unsure widow of a slain prime minister who disliked the politics which had claimed the lives of her husband and mother-in-law. An expressionless symbol who was taking lessons in Hindi and was being pushed into becoming prime minister. Such is the majestic unpredictability of life that those who openly challenged Sonia- citing the example of Italian politics itself and the limited role for foreign-born nationals there- now seek her favours and blessings as they have been left by the wayside. The mercurial Mamata Bannerjee is the latest one to be cut to size.
The twists and turns in Sonia Gandhi’s life have led her from an obscure Italian village to the highest position of power in the world’s largest democracy. As Rajat Gupta, the disgraced former managing director of McKinsey & Co. and many others would have discovered, the unpredictability of life is its most humbling characteristic.
However, once in power, Sonia Gandhi seems to have imbibed some of the finer qualities of Indian politics. She no longer appears cold and is warm and dignified in her conduct, especially while dealing with rivals and adversaries. She does not seem to be as ruthless and unforgiving as her mother-in-law was in politics.
No one denies the overwhelming influence of this longest-serving president of the Congress party who seems to deliberately keep the glare of publicity at the minimum. She is neither seen nor heard as much as the other protagonists in Indian politics and is more of a backroom operator. But it is her invisibility that has magnified the enigma of Sonia Gandhi.