Late Saturday night, the Congress Party’s Working Committee (CWC) unanimously chose Sonia Gandhi as its interim president. She has been the party president before; at first reluctantly and, then, with gusto from 1998 to 2017, and was responsible for installing two editions of the Manmohan government at the centre. After the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and a few awful years of finding her feet on the slippery ground of Congress politics, and isolated hurtfully by the likes of P.V. Narasimha Rao (the late prime minister), Sonia Gandhi led both her wounded family and the party to stability. Until the BJP’s tidal wave of ultra-nationalism washed over the country, beginning with 2014 when the first Modi government came to power.
The position of the party president had been lying vacant since the resignation of her son, Rahul Gandhi, following the poor performance of the party in the May general election when it could secure only 52 out of the 545 seats in Parliament.
The Modi government, currently presiding over the transition of India from a soft to hard state, last week abrogated Article 370, ending Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous state. Most of India celebrated. The media largely ignored the few protesting voices from Kashmir. The Congress party’s performance on this potentially explosive issue both in parliament and outside has been listless, rudderless, clueless.
The Congress party spins around the Gandhi/Nehru family. Even when non-family members have assumed the party chief’s post, the party as an organisation reported to the Gandhis. The pillars of the party repeatedly approached Rahul and, his sister, Priyanka, to head the party. For a change, instead of the ranks, the leaders revolted. Both Rahul and Priyanka declined.
The BJP is likely to be in power for some time to come. Indian business tycoons know this only too well. That means they are not likely to loosen their purses for the Congress party. This makes Sonia Gandhi’s job one of the toughest in the world.
Rahul Gandhi’s position has been that the party needs to be revamped from leaders down. The pillars have balked. A man or a woman from outside the family means new equations of power. This is not easy as the party elders are all quite well-entrenched and have to protect their fiefdoms. Equally, it is possible that even if an outsider is elected, the real power, for what it is worth, would rest with the Gandhis. Which makes the party president’s job neither easy nor lucrative.
As a result, Sonia Gandhi has had to step in again. No matter what her detractors say about nepotism and related shibboleths, this assignment is not likely to have been sought after by her.
On her head sits, again, the crown of thorns. On her back the old cross. And she is 72 years old, the same age as independent India, and she has only recently recovered from a grave illness. One must put it down to the kind of irony that India specialises in that she assumes her leadership role when India is caught up in the Kashmir vortex. Sonia Gandhi is married into the Nehru family, whose roots go back to Kashmir.
Sonia getting pitched back in the saddle is only half the story. She has said she would lead only until a new president is elected. This does not seem likely in the near future, given the state the party is in.
As things stand, the BJP, led by Modi and Amit Shah (the Indian home minister who engineered the abrogation of Article 370) is building a new state, casting off the Nehruvian anchors of ‘socialism and secularism.’ No matter how the economy is shaping up — currently, it is on a downside — the social and political nature of India is set for drastic alteration, if it has not already undergone the transition; the last is not easy to judge as the rate at which the change is happening is too fast to gauge. Indeed, if the economy continues to tank, all the more reason to expect more radical unravelling of the Indian fabric.
For Sonia, it is vital that she gets her party rejigged and running on the ground. Amit Shah is a genius when it comes to organisational matters. The Congress party sorely lacks resources like Shah. Financially, too, they face an uphill task. As things stand, the BJP is likely to be in power for some time to come — a decade from the look of it. Indian business tycoons know this only too well. That means they are not likely to loosen their purses for the Congress party. All this makes Sonia Gandhi’s job one of the toughest in the world. But she is, on the credit side, a very strong woman.
At 72, people tend to think of retirement. Sonia Gandhi was probably toying with the idea until last week. No longer. It does appear a little unfair that a woman who has made enormous personal sacrifices — husband and mother-in-law assassinated, dispossessed of her Italian roots, speaking an acquired language, and, in all likelihood, distant from the Roman Catholic Church she must have grown up praying in — can’t call it a day. For those chosen by destiny, there are no Sundays, perhaps.
C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India