On Sunday, Sonia Gandhi, 75, interim president of Indian National Congress, attended her first public meeting against the price rise and inflation in India. This was her first public outing in years and in doing so, Gandhi sent out a firm signal that all was well in her party.
In recent months senior opposition leaders have gone public on a lack of confidence in Rahul Gandhi’s abilities and leadership.
Sonia was accompanied by both her children in the well-attended Rajasthan rally and her appearance and speech both seemed to be an attempt to to paper over the cracks and rise to the occasion, despite illness and age.
As the longest serving Congress president in history, Sonia Gandhi was an unlikely contender from the start, hampered by both language and her status as a foreigner. Yet she managed India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for ten years, which saw a record number of Indians rise out of the poverty trap.
Now Sonia redux is a valiant attempt to hold the Congress party together, despite factionalism and daily defections by leaders for greener pastures. Top leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Himanta Sarma Biswa have gone over to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sushmita Deb to the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). A host of Congress leaders are lingering by the exit door.
While the Rajasthan rally was a feather in the cap of Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister, who is currently facing heat from Sachin Pilot, it also showed that India’s Grand Old Party still had a presence on the ground.
This was the first public appointment of Sonia Gandhi after the death of her trusted aide, Ahmed Patel, to Covid-19. Patel not only provided invaluable counsel to Gandhi but was her outreach to other opposition parties.
The current stand-off with Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister, who has led the public chorus doubting the Congress, is a result of the lack of a Patel replacement.
High level sources in TMC told Gulf News that the tempestuous Banerjee shared a good relationship with Sonia Gandhi and reposed a lot of faith in Patel. They noted that the wires appeared to have gotten crossed between the two parties as Banerjee felt that she was repeatedly shortchanged by Rahul Gandhi.
So what has made Sonia Gandhi come out of her political sanyas (retirement)? Was it a desire to save the party facing record attrition since 2014 or to ensure the political success of the Gandhi siblings who till date have only faced political vanquishment?
Sonia Gandhi had built up political relationships with almost all senior opposition leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar, M K Stalin, along with other key movers and shakers. Importantly, these key opposition leaders trust her and take her seriously — a courtesy they don’t extend to Rahul Gandhi, who has hardly bothered to reach out and build relationships with key opposition leaders.
Political legacy at stake
Gandhi, say Congress sources, is also animated by what she sees as serial attacks on minority rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. Rahul Gandhi’s speech on Hindus versus Hindutvadi in the Rajasthan meeting was also in that context. Recently in at least two BJP ruled states, minorities have not been allowed to carry out some of their religious obligations by hoodlums.
Before Modi when Congress was in power, Gandhi, wisely left the running of the government to Dr Manmohan Singh, a man of impeccable integrity and someone preeminently qualified for the job.
She handed over the job of building alliances and ‘give and take’ of realpolitik to Patel. Sonia ensured that Patel was the firefighter with flex. Gandhi had a successful run with the UPA, leading them to unlikely victory at the federal level but her subsequent handing over of party reigns to Rahul Gandhi has not been a success.
After his second general election loss on the trot, Gandhi handed the party back to his mother but kept calling all the shots, leading to serial missteps.
Sonia Gandhi has now put her own political legacy at stake, reluctantly ending her retirement to ensure success for the Congress. It has worked before. Will it work again? The jury is out on that. Watch this space.