As Sonia Gandhi hands over baton, another Congress era ends

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With Rahul Gandhi’s unopposed election as president of the 132-year-old Indian National Congress, the era of Sonia Gandhi will end on Saturday. Her 19 years at the helm, the longest in the party’s history, not only tells us something about her and her party, but also defines a template the party will likely follow in the foreseeable future.

While opponents – chiefly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently rules the nation and dominates state legislatures throughout northern and western India – have derided her tenure and her passing the baton to son Rahul as anti-democratic and dynastic, this overlooks two important facts about India’s Grand Old Party, which spearheaded independence from Britain and ruled for much of the republic’s 70 years.

One is that the post of party president has not meant much (until Sonia’s assumption of office) in the two eras of the party: the pre-independence years, when Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi was the most powerful man in the Congress without being an office-bearer (he was president in 1924); and the post-independence years when Congress dominated government, making the prime minister’s post more powerful than the party president’s.

Second, the Nehru-Gandhi family has usually taken up the presidency after a crisis in the party. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, took over as party chief in the early 1950s. After the death of deputy PM Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru had a difficult time staving off the party’s conservative wing and therefore took charge.

Though his daughter Indira Gandhi was party president – against her father’s wishes – for a year in 1959 (when Communist-run Kerala became India’s first state government to be dismissed), her substantive term began in 1978, after her party lost national power for the first time ever, and ended with her assassination in 1984. That assassination led to another crisis for the party, and so her son Rajiv took over as president until his own assassination in 1991.

The next crisis brewed during the prime ministership (thanks to a sympathy vote generated by Rajiv’s death) of P V Narasimha Rao, who pretty much demolished the Congress party in India’s two most populous states – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – by allowing the disputed Babri Masjid to be demolished by right-wing volunteers in 1992.

Muslims distrusted the Congress, and upper castes deserted the Congress for the BJP, which, less than a decade earlier, had a mere two seats in the Lok Sabha, lower house of the Indian Parliament. To this day, Congress members half-joke about Narasimha Rao being the BJP’s sleeper agent.

Sitaram Kesri succeeded Rao as party chief, but the party’s existential crisis had become ominous. Thus Sonia stepped in and helped steer the party to 10 years in power, 2004-2014.

Sonia has demonstrated thick skin – at least thicker than that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has lately complained on the campaign trail about mild insults. From the start Sonia was attacked for her Italian birth by parties ranging from the BJP to the splinter Nationalist Congress Party headed by Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar. She has been described in whisper campaigns as a foreign spy or a daughter of an Italian fascist, and even derided as a waitress in England. And these are just the polite attacks. But she has been stoic. Arguably, she is more Indian than many compatriots today.

Sonia held the Congress together singlehandedly, staving off self-serving interests within the party who have brought it to the brink of ruin

She has been among the smartest Congress presidents, playing her cards close to her chest despite grumblings about lack of inner-party transparency. She held the Congress together singlehandedly, staving off self-serving interests within the party who have brought it to the brink of ruin.

And though her mother-in-law Indira was left-leaning (until the 1975 Emergency rule, at least), Sonia was the first party chief to make an alliance with Communists for Dr Manmohan Singh’s first government (2004-2009). Her overall success has ensured that after the Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri experience, the party rank and file can never trust a non-family member as party chief.

Sonia has her flaws. Her party had its worst electoral performance in 2014, winning only 44 of the 542 Lok Sabha seats. A Modi wave may have swept the country, but it was arguably facilitated by her inaction over the avalanche of corruption allegations that paralyzed Manmohan Singh’s second government from 2012 onward.

The other weakness has been her inability to manipulate Congress members as well as her mother-in-law did. Sonia relied heavily on a coterie. If a party senior was judged unreliable, she did not keep him close so as to prevent him making trouble.

She has been less than successful in the party’s generational transition – in Madhya Pradesh, which has a legislative election next year, leaders such as Kamal Nath (the party’s longest-serving parliamentarian) and Digvijay Singh have been left out in the cold; they will be important if Jyotiraditya Scindia is to earn the chief ministership.

Similarly, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has been noticeably quiet during the Gujarat election campaign. And Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was deputed to Himachal Pradesh for its state election, has not been heard of since.

This week Rahul was elected as party president, a practice dropped by the BJP. No one opposed him, because at the moment he is invincible even if the party loses Gujarat. Rahul has singlehandedly fought the entire BJP government machinery, and with a cheeriness that has won over Gujaratis.

Like his father and Sonia, Rahul “Pappu” Gandhi has been subjected to unwarranted ridicule. He has even turned the tables on some, such as the Assam health minister who accused him of paying more attention to his dog: He posted a video of his dog on the Internet. (The same minister recently landed in controversy for saying cancer patients were suffering for the sins of a past life.) While Rahul still has a distance to go, he has generated optimism among the rank and file.

Sonia’s final bequest to Rahul, her poor health permitting, will happen if she campaigns for him in the 2019 parliamentary election. If she’s around, she will make an impact. It will seal her legacy in Congress’ history.

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