Sonia Gandhi has perfected the art of masterly inactivity even in the face of continual disquiet, dissent and rebellion in the Congress party.
A new crack showed up Wednesday when Jyotiraditya Scindia said Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath should listen to his ministers and not outsiders. Scindia came out in support of forest minister Umang Singhar who had accused Nath of running a proxy government.
In this leadership tussle in Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to intervene unless the key players – Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh – cross the ‘Lakshman rekha’ of party discipline. And the Lakshman rekha in Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is infinite and ambiguous, giving enough room to the leadership to ignore minor indiscretions such as the utterances of Umang Singhar and others. Sonia’s aides say that it is up to chief minister Kamal Nath and AICC in-charge of MP Deepak Bawaria to take a call.
Similarly, in Haryana, Sonia has given a long rope to Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his son Deepender. The Hoodas were on the verge of a split when Sonia took over as the interim president about three weeks ago. At their Rohtak rally on 18 August, they dithered and kept deferring their call to snap ties with the parent organisation until Sonia appointed “Bhoopy” as the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader. Hooda will also be the chairman of the election management committee. Short of being projected as the chief ministerial candidate, Hooda got a face-saving formula.
As the matriarch of the Congress parivar, Sonia Gandhi realises that her authority can be applied only within the boundaries of “I owe you” vouchers of the past and through impartial handling of faction-ridden politics. But this approach is yielding rich dividends for her. The high command culture is intact, but she is aware that unless the Congress under the Gandhis starts winning elections, it would not be prudent to crack the whip.
Sonia Gandhi employed a similar technique with three senior leaders –Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh and Abhishek Manu Singhvi – when they created a flutter by saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be praised whenever he did something right and not be always demonised. Sonia was reportedly incensed, but chose to ignore their remarks on the grounds that they were “habitual offenders”, say those close to her.
In May 2017, Tharoor had supported the idea of replacing India’s British parliamentary style of democracy with the US-style presidential government. In an article published in Project Syndicate, Tharoor had advocated a rethink of the parliamentary system – almost mirroring Modi’s words – claiming that frequent polls in the country’s 29 states puts pressure on the prime minister to “frequently leave aside their role as leader of the country to act as leader of their party” and face many “plebiscites”. The Congress MP had gone on to state, “With a more expansive and predictable election cycle, India’s leaders would be able to move beyond the unpleasant business of political contention, and settle down to governance. In that shift in focus lies a presidential system’s ultimate vindication.”
The official Congress line on this is different. In 1972, J.B. Kripalani’s wrote on whether stable governments are essential for democracy, saying that “a stable government that threatens to perpetuate itself by any means that it can command, would certainly, in course of time, destroy democracy…It is wrong to think that periodical changes in the government, whether in favour of a single party or a coalition of parties, is undesirable in a democracy.”
Jairam Ramesh’s comments
Jairam Ramesh, on previous occasions, has also shown the audacity to take on Sonia Gandhi and get away. In a May 2000 article titled ‘Sonia: no longer the saviour’, Ramesh (AICC economic wing secretary at that time) was quoted as saying: “Two years down the line, Sonia is seen as a loser and the morale in the party is low. The hype generated when Sonia became party president has settled down. The mood has swung from one extreme to another. People who saw her as a ticket to nirvana now see her as a ticket to narak (hell)”.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi & a CD
In October 2010, when Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre, Abhishek Manu Singhvi had appeared in court representing lottery operators in Kerala and holding legal briefings for them. Singhvi’s appearance in the Kerala lottery case had caused acute embarrassment to Sonia Gandhi as the state Congress unit had launched a campaign against promoters of lotteries. Two years later, in September 2012, Abhishek Manu Singhvi had quit as AICC spokesperson after a controversial CD, allegedly featuring him in compromising position, had gone viral. Sonia, then AICC president, was under pressure from a section of the party to throw Singhvi out. Instead, she showed him compassion and slowly, the lawyer crawled back into the party fold.
Cracking the whip, in time
When Sonia took over as Congress president in March 1998, there was a sense of despondency amid large-scale desertions due to P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri’s mishandling of the party organisation. Sonia, instead of punishing and purging, went on accommodating and catering to the concerns of various factions and individuals without acting in a partisan way.
There were constant provocations, but the disciplinary whip was not cracked till the party started winning elections – going from four to 14 state assemblies and eventually dethroning Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA at the Centre in 2004. Except for Jaganmohan Reddy and K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the Congress as an organisation remained intact.
This is her tested style of conflict management and leadership. She doesn’t hasten toward conflict resolution when she sees a problem. To those who don’t know her, it might look like inaction, but Sonia Gandhi knows when to hold back and when to control, alt, delete.
The author is a visiting fellow at ORF and author of Sonia, a Biography and 24 Akbar Road. Views are personal.
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