A new twist has been added to Indian politics. It is the advent of Sonia Gandhi as a crucial factor in the emerging political scenario. There is good reason to believe that the Italian-born widow's decision to plunge into the election campaign could influence events well beyond the polls.
Already, Sonia has effectively pushed out other contenders from the public limelight. If one were to accumulate newspaper and television clips on her over the past few weeks, they are likely to far exceed the entire clippings file for the past six months on Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indeed, regardless of what she does for the electoral fortunes of the Congress, the 1998 elections will be remembered as the event that launched Sonia Gandhi into politics.
Make no mistake. Sonia has not stepped out of the gates of 10 Janpath merely to become a cosmetic Congress icon. Otherwise she would not have (some say foolishly) raised highly controversial topics, like Bofors and Babri Masjid, from which the Congress has shied away for so many years. Such aggressive postures on issues where she and her party are vulnerable may well, in the end, turn counter-productive. But by doing so, Sonia has underlined her intentions of being far more than a face on a poster or a name in a slogan. For better or for worse, the lady has decided to make the battle for the survival of the Congress her own.
It would also be wrong to assume that Sonia's calculations entirely hinge on the Congress managing to cobble together a coalition government after the polls. Despite the surface bluster, she appears to be a shrewd and cautious person unlikely to underestimate the daunting task of breathing life into a political fossil. Sonia knows that even if her barnstorming campaign across the country does revive the party's prospects in areas where it still retains a potential base and organisational infrastructure, there are vast regions—most notably the two largest states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—where the Congress is beyond artificial resuscitation.
Clearly, her game plan must take into account a possible, if not probable, Congress defeat in the elections. She cannot but be aware that the expected gains for the party in the polls are likely to be at the cost of constituents of the United Front—and need not necessarily halt the march of the BJP juggernaut to power at the centre. It is quite possible that even as Sonia seeks to head the Congress to victory at the hustings, she is also preparing for a stint in the Opposition.
In any case, there are enough indications that Sonia is not really interested in the kind of patchwork alliances being earlier crafted by Congress president Sitaram Kesri with regional warlords like Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram. In a matter of a few weeks, she and her party aides have quietly sabotaged these arrangements—all of which were dependent on a weak Congress down on its knees and begging for outside help. Not surprisingly, there has been little scope in advancing such negotiations after the return of the dynasty to the helm of the party.
Sonia has also erased any remaining doubts about her intentions of being far more than a star campaigner for the Congress. In the course of her campaign so far, she has made no bones about drawing a direct link between her present role and that played by her husband and mother-in-law in the past. There has been no ambivalence in her public announcement that she "would not be deflected from my chosen course to restore the Congress party to its historic destiny".
On the face of it, this metamorphosis—in just a couple of open-jawed weeks—of the introverted widow long hidden behind the gates of 10 Janpath, into an aggressive, gesticulating soap box orator makes little sense. Having spurned the leadership of the Congress in far better days, it would have been logical for her to stay away at a time when the party appeared set to perform its own funeral rites. Even a noted Gandhi dynasty-baiter like Cho Ramaswamy observed in a recent newspaper article that Sonia's decision to take up the reins of the Congress at this point of time was more akin to "bearing a cross" than to "wearing a crown".
Yet behind her veil, the Gandhi widow has, ever since the assassination of Rajiv, been teetering on the edge of joining active politics. Despite flatly refusing the party's offer to wear the mantle of her slain husband, she had assiduously kept alive her links with the Congress and the political legacy of the Gandhi dynasty. Over the past many years, Sonia had, with remarkable skill, managed to use the Congress and the Gandhi title to retain a larger-than-life identity without actually plunging into the uncertainties of day-to-day politics.
However, this balancing act was possible so long as the Gandhi dynasty continued to be a potent symbol which in turn was dependent on the Congress remaining a relevant political force in the country. Despite her personal aversion to dipping her hands in muddy political waters, Sonia had a vested interest in the survival of the Congress if only to preserve her own identity. The fact that the party—even after being deposed from power in the last elections—still retained the position of a major player in making or breaking the government at the Centre, allowed her to continue playing this game of hide and seek.
Unfortunately for Sonia, the fall of the Gujral government—orchestrated by quarters close to her—introduced a new alarming catalyst to the steady decline of the Congress. As large chunks of the Congress threatened to fall apart, the consequences of still spurning leadership was grim. One section of the party was queuing up to join the BJP. A remaining rump led by Kesri was headed towards an alliance with regional chieftains. In the emerging political scheme, there would be no value, even symbolic, for the representative of a dynasty that once ruled India.
By jumping into the political arena, Sonia has quickly halted her potentially rapid marginalisation. Apart from hijacking the 1998 poll agenda, she is now ensured of the status of the undisputed leader of at least the second largest political party. Her real role may unfold only once the elections are over.
What all this means for the country is anybody's guess. Like her mother-in-law—a potent and available model whom she is clearly emulating—Sonia has unpredictable capacities for both good and evil. What is certain at the moment is that Indian politics should be prepared for the imprint of another Gandhi.