There are two Iron Laws of politics that we often forget. Even politicians sometimes lose sight of them — to their detriment. Just ask Sonia Gandhi.
The first Iron Law is: Power always trumps position. You can call a politician ‘king of the world’ but if the title has no real power to go with it, he or she will prefer a small-time job with real power (say, a minister in a state government).
This should come as no surprise. Politicians say they join the profession to ‘serve the nation’, ‘help society’, et cetera, et cetera. But even the relatively few who are guided by these lofty motives understand that politics is about power. In their defence, you can argue that to ‘help society’, ‘serve the nation’ or whatever, you need to be in power. But either way, power is why they are in politics.
The second Iron Law is: A leader is only as good as the elections he or she can win for the party. The basis of all political leadership is an unspoken contract between the leader and his or her followers. The leader gets the followers elected and, in return, they offer their loyalty.
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A power trip
Take, for example, Narendra Modi. The Prime Minister rules the BJP with an iron fist. He can do whatever he wants and nobody in the party will utter a word in protest. This is not because Narendra Modi is super human. It is because he can swing elections. His members know that without his popularity, the BJP would not be in power and if they want to win their own elections, they have to ask for votes in Modi’s name.
It is the same all over the world. In the UK, Conservative MPs were well aware that Boris Johnson was a deeply flawed individual with only a glancing acquaintance with the truth. But they backed him anyway because they knew he was popular enough to win an election. A few months ago, when the polls said that the Conservatives would lose the next election if he was their leader, they dumped him. In the US, even Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen who loathe Donald Trump pretend to agree with him because a large section of the Republican base supports the former president.
Why look so far? There are enough examples in India. The Congress dumped Narasimha Rao after the 1996 defeat. LK Advani, who believed that he would lead the BJP forever, was tossed overboard when the members became convinced that he would lead the party to another defeat and that only Modi could guarantee electoral success.
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Sonia Gandhi’s blindspot
Most politicians know all this. It is in their bones. But I am beginning to get the sense that the Gandhis have still not worked this out. It is partly because of Sonia Gandhi’s own career decisions. She was offered the Congress leadership (and therefore the prime ministership) in 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. She turned it down. She could have been prime minister in 2004. But she turned it down again. Unlike most people in politics, she is not fixated on power.
Nor does she recognise how closely the respect that a party leader commands is linked to his or her ability to win elections. This may be because of her own experience. Soon after she joined politics, the Congress lost two Lok Sabha elections in a row. But the party rallied behind her, even refusing to join a revolt by Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma. When the Congress went down in a humiliating defeat in 2014, nobody asked her to step down and she was even able to nominate her son Rahul as her successor.
She continues to be respected. But no politician or party can remain immune to the Iron Laws of politics forever. And as the Ashok Gehlot fiasco demonstrates, the Congress is like every other party. As much as it reveres the Gandhis, their authority has been badly eroded by their inability to win elections any longer. People may still respect them. But they won’t always listen to them.
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Party president is not the same as being CM
In surreptitiously supporting Ashok Gehlot for Congress president, Sonia Gandhi has made two basic mistakes. One: she believed that any Congress leader would take the exalted position of party president (the post that she herself held) over a chief ministership. After all, when she was Congress president, she was the one who made and unmade chief ministers.
But times have changed. These days, the Congress president has no power, only the difficult task of making the party electable again. The chief minister of Rajasthan, on the other hand, has real power.
When Gehlot agreed to stand for Congress president, he believed—or so I imagine—that he could either keep the chief ministership or (and this was his worst-case scenario) appoint a proxy in his place and continue to run the state. What he was not prepared to do was hand over Rajasthan to Sachin Pilot. And yet, for some reason, the Gandhis believed that he would be so thrilled to become Congress president that he would hand over his power base to a man he has repeatedly attacked in public.
Why did they think they could pull this off? Well, because they believed they were the leaders and could get their members to do whatever they wanted. Once upon a time, this was true. But times have changed.
The Gandhis over-ruled Jyotiraditya Scindia’s claim to be chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (and later appear to have changed their minds even about the Rajya Sabha seat he was promised). He joined the BJP and brought down the state government. They denied Sachin Pilot’s claim to the top job in Rajasthan and he came within a hair’s breadth of joining the BJP as well. They humiliated Amarinder Singh and promoted Navjot Singh Sidhu. In the process, the Congress lost Punjab, Amarinder joined hands with the BJP, and Sidhu is in jail.
So, why should Sonia have believed that simply by (silently) backing Ashok Gehlot for party president, she could get him to hand his state over to Sachin Pilot? The best-case scenario was that, even if Gehlot had agreed to let Pilot take over, he would have orchestrated so much dissidence against Pilot that Rajasthan would become ungovernable. If any deal can still be worked out, this is exactly what will happen.
No real power
There are some lessons from these episodes that everybody must remember. One, so few people in the Congress have any real political power at all that it is crazy to expect them to voluntarily relinquish it. Two, the days when the Gandhis could count on Congress leaders to do what they ask have faded to the same extent as the family’s ability to win elections has.
And three, nobody is immune from the Iron Laws of politics. You can delay the inevitable. But time always catches up with you.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.