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From Sonia Maino to Sonia Gandhi to Congress boss

Posted on: June 25, 2009

After resisting for seven years, Sonia Gandhi allowed herself to be persuaded to join the Congress in 1997and become its president a few months later, even though her daughter and son had initially counselled her to keep off politics.
But once in the saddle, she plunged herself wholeheartedly into rejuvenating the Congress party. She hit the then Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government where it hurt the most: the scams in relation to the Kargil warfare which the Vajpayee government had turned into its victory, in spite of the collective failures of National Security Council, Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau (all directly under the Prime Minister), the military intelligence (under Defence Minister George Fernandes) and the BSF intelligence (under Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani).
Had the three top leaders of the government been alert to their responsibilities, Pakistan would not have been able to build up its bunkers inside India and the country would have been spared lives of hundreds of army officers and jawans, as well as the loss of materials amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees.
At the top of this was the bungling in defence deals which was exposed by Tehelka. Sonia Gandhi decided to take it up. She asked her party men to collect signatures all over the country on a petition to the President seeking an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the defence scams. The Congressmen worked with a missionary zeal and were reported to have collected around 6.25 crore signatures in a three-month-long countrywide drive.

Massive mobilisation
Such a massive mobilisation of the Congress party on an issue of vital public interest had not been witnessed in the past several decades. The top NDA leaders went into panic. Defence Minister George Fernandes lost his sleep, and with that part of his sanity also. He went on threatening to file sedition cases against Sonia Gandhi if she did not desist (from what he said was demoralising the armed forces). Sonia Gandhi had, in spite of her linguistic handicaps and “lack of experience” in politics) caught the imagination of the masses. . It was said that Sonia, accompanied by all PCC presidents, would hand over the signatures to the President and seek action.
Then “something” happened and Sonia Gandhi pushed off to New York on a five-day visit allegedly for eliciting support of the non-resident Indians for the revitalisation process in the Congress party. Instead of seeking a fresh date from President K.R.Narayanan for submission of the signatures, she gave instructions to some AICC functionaries to take the truckloads of the bundles of signatures to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and present these to the President. Only a few newspapers took notice of it in a few lines on inside pages. The whole thing ended in a chaffy anti-climax.
One hoped to find an answer to this enigmatic behaviour of Sonia Gandhi in her only authentic (though unofficial) biography, authored by senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai. But there is none. Did Kidwai deliberately gloss over this murky side of Sonia Gandhi? (He is still a working journalist and, as such, has to take into consideration so many imponderables). But he does give a clear hint: “Bofors was a red flag to Sonia”.
The Bofors gun deal and the alleged involvement of Ottavio Quattrocchi with the scandal had been a source of tremendous embarrassment to the Gandhi family. With Sonia’s decision to reduce into a farce the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the defence deal scams, the BJP pushed into the background not only Quattrocchi but also the Bofors gun deal and Fernandes stopped threatening Sonia with sedition cases. What was more, Vajpayee, who had been much offended by Sonia’s speech in Lok Sabha, became such an admirer of her that he chose her to lead the official delegation to the United Nations AIDS conference to the chagrin of some of his own party leaders.
Rasheed’s book gives an insight into the transformation of Sonia Maino into Sonia Gandhi. She, no doubt, comes out as gutsy woman. By her own admission, she was a naughty and very active girl in her early life. Josto Maffeo, one of her early boyfriends, recalls her as one with a fiery temper. Sister Anna Maria of the Convent where Sonia studied had found her “always a little manipulative” who would “do well in politics”.
She was in desperate need of all these qualities when she took over, towards the close of the last century, the reins of the Congress party which had become the haven for power hungry intriguers. Once she was in control of the party apparatus through a series of manipulations undertaken by others like Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar on her behalf, she started dealing with the opponents (the NDA government in this case). She annoyed a suave Vajpayee with her remarks in Parliament and sent the entire government into panic by launching a nation-wide signature campaign on the defence deal scams. And then she “compromised”!
Sonia was in her element during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when she had, according to Rasheed, “clocked over 70,000 kilometres during the campaign, criss-crossing the length and breadth of the country without much support from the second line of the Congress leaders”. Against the predictions of most of the pollsters, Sonia scored over Vajpayee and his allies. How she cobbled up the requisite majority for forming the government and anointed Manmohan Singh as the Prime minister is a recent history.
That was perhaps the last of what was best in Sonia. After that there was only decline of the party under her leadership. She failed to bring internal democracy to the party. The leaders with no more contacts with the grassroots were given important positions at the AICC or in the States. Meetings of party forums were no more held regularly. Bogus membership which had been the scourge of the Congress organisation in the 1970s again became common during Sonia’s regime. Rasheed notes: “while the Congress claims to have over forty million primary members, the party leadership has discovered that a substantial part of the membership is bogus”.
(At the insistence of the party men from Bihar in the1972 plenary session of the Congress at Salt Lake in Calcutta, an official committee appointed with then AICC general secretary Chandrajeet Yadav had found that about 60 per cent of the names of primary members from Bihar were bogus).

Revamping the organisation
Rasheed refers to several committees appointed by Sonia Gandhi to revamp the Congress organisation and notes that none of their recommendations had been implemented. He further notes (rather candidly) “a series of electoral debacles has further queered the pitch for the Congress. By the time the Congress lost Karnataka in May 2008, it had lost thirteen State Assembly polls since coming to power in 2004”. (Two more after that: Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh). Some Congress leaders have lamented in private conversations (to Rasheed) that “Sonia was not assertive while taking decisions on State matters”. How long will she be able to hold her supremacy if she is not able to arrest the decline of the party prospects?
The first edition of “Sonia: A Biography” was published in 2003. Things, particularly in the context of Sonia Gandhi, have gone a sea chance since then. The present edition is a revised version going up to the nuclear deal and the somersaults of Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh. All may not agree with Rasheed’s assessment that the trust vote in Parliament on July 22,2008 on the nuclear deal issue had brought out Manmohan Singh’s “inherent reservoirs of strength, political acumen and integrity”. (Manmohan Singh managed the trust vote not through any political acumen but using the money power to purchase the opposition MPs and bullying the MPS through his muscleman and National Security Adviser M.K.Narayanan. Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh had exposed his ugly tactics by holding a press conference).
Still, those who are interested in the evolution of power politics may find the book fascinating, written in a lucid style.


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June 2009
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Outright Perilous!

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