It requires no complicated analysis to conclude that Sonia Gandhi probably has the job she wants. Number 10, Janpath is any day a superior bungalow to 7, Race Course Road. Every world statesman, representative of think tanks, scholar who visits New Delhi calls on her. Being leader of opposition is so much safer when you know you do not have the training for prime ministerial cares.
And in these days of sting operations and rampant sinning, it’s just as well that she runs the Congress party like a cloistered school. Heaven knows what goes on inside. The fawning flunkeys who have been positioned around her as her advisers, her eyes and ears, have over the years been trained to be totally impervious to electoral fluctuations. Walk the straight and narrow; shun worldly digressions. Wait for the Day of Judgement. Wait and watch and pray until that day when higher political power, prime ministership, may come riding a bolt like the one that dazzled Moses on the Mount.
That front page photograph was so revealing. On both sides sat Ashok Gehlot and Digvijay Singh, looking like errant school boys. In the middle sat Mother, next in authority only to Mother Superior, looking firm, severe, in control — Ambika Soni, who would have guided Gehlot, Diggy Raja, Jogi to victory if only they had listened.
Playing charismatic politics in the absence of charisma requires rigorous discipline within the four walls of the cloistered school. The general principle is that everyone must be ‘‘humble’’ in the presence of the deity.
Victories for Gehlot, Diggy and Jogi would, by the laws of 10 Janpath, have placed a tiny halo on Soni’s head as well. This would have unsettled the hierarchies within the sanctum sanctorum. Other purohits would have mumbled. Defeat keeps the hierarchies intact. There is a togetherness of those in a state of funk. In this framework, Sheila Dikshit sticks out. She has to be slapped down a notch or two. The fear of God is put into her by delaying her enthronement. This choreography is essential to keep the fold after the rout in three states. Thus, the victorious Dikshit is kept on the straight and narrow. The other fellow, Jogi, must be pulled back from declaring UDI (unilateral declaration of Independence). An educated tribal, IAS not from the reserved but general category, has a potential for disrupting gameplans in 2004. He must be shackled even before the CBI inquiry is over.
Sonia Gandhi abides by overall gameplans, whether they favour the Congress or not. This selflessness leaves her with the second most decorous job in the land and prevents the larger, national gameplan from being disrupted.
Look what India has gone through since 1996, when P.V. Narasimha Rao brought down the party to 140 Lok Sabha seats. In pursuit of the principle ‘‘after me, the deluge’’, he gifted the Congress presidentship to the wily Bihari, Sitaram Kesri. The party purohits knew Kesri was manageable so long as he wore only one cap, of party president. Should he, by some freak chance, lay his hand on the other cap, of prime minister, he would become irremovable. The low caste Bihari wearing two caps worn by Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rao would upturn all the traditional hierarchies within the Congress.
The national picture was also disturbing. The Rao-Manmohan Singh duet had gifted the nation a new economic policy, demanding political stability. Instead, the nation was saddled with the third force which Laloo Yadav described in his memorable words as the ‘‘third compartment’’.
First Deve Gowda, then Inder Gujaral ran coalitions of which a muscular Left Front was a sizeable part. Worse still, Jyoti Basu had nearly become prime minister. The Berlin wall had fallen in 1989. And, here, the world’s largest democracy was running the risk of installing a Communist PM, Indeed, a card carrying Communist, Inderjit Gupta, did become home minister. Restiveness spread from Wall Street to Dalal Street.
Sonia Gandhi stepped in to save the day. Congress had won 141 seats under Kesri and only 114 under Sonia. Never mind such trivia. Larger purposes have to be served. The Third Force needed Congress support but would not let it share power. Reason? How can we, the constituents of the coalition, share power with the Congress when it is the party we have to fight in the states? The Congress’s national spread, increasingly thin admittedly, became the stumbling block in the era of coalitions. Sonia understood her limitations.
Now Sonia, in her bungalow, keeps one end bottled up. Leaving the field wide open to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The prime minister, very mindlful of Sonia’s position as the leader of the opposition, now has a double task. One, to win, which he easily will because his emphasis on good governance and peace with Pakistan and China has made him acceptable to all coalition partners, particularly those in waiting. Second, to ensure that Sonia remains leader of the opposition so that the ambitions of Chandrababu Naidu, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav do not spoil the picnic. Carry on, Sonia, until you become prime minister by 2020 on your own steam, without coalitions.
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