Sonia Gandhi was the longest serving president of the Congress party, and a rare politician who seemed to actually want to retire. She handed over the baton to son Rahul Gandhi in December 2017.
Rahul Gandhi’s serial flop show has seen the 72-year-old Sonia Gandhi end her semi-retirement and make a return to full-time politics.
The senior Gandhi is a fascinating political study. On the one hand, she has never put a foot wrong in the minefield that is Indian politics, and on the other, she exemplifies and endorses the absolute right of dynastic family rule.
Sonia Gandhi is fiercely proud of the Gandhi family heritage and made it her life’s work to ensure that her son succeeded her. Gandhi once said in a rare interview that she entered politics because she felt reproached by the family photographs hanging on the walls of her home.
And even now, when her son has quit as Congress party president and seems adamant on his resignation not to end in the usual farcical theatrics, Sonia Gandhi is immovable. She wants him to continue because in her reckoning Gandhis are not quitters.
Perhaps for the first time there is a rift in the extremely close Gandhi family. Rahul is refusing to budge and has left for London, while both Sonia and Priyanka want him to continue.
Perhaps the frustration led to the Priyanka Gandhi outburst and attack on Congress workers in Raebareli where she put the blame on them for the party’s defeat. Priyanka Gandhi seemed spectacularly out of touch and extremely feudal as she berated the workers. Which leader blames the troops for defeat?
'Not our fault'
Instead of introspecting about the cause of the wipe-out such as the unelected durbaris who make up the core team of the Gandhi’s the shambolic campaign that the party ran, Priyanka blamed the workers.
This was truly bizarre as Raebareli was the one and only seat in Uttar Pradesh that the Congress won.
Sonia Gandhi made no such misstep. She hinted that the BJP misled voters and raised questions on the electoral process. But clearly the mother and daughter are out of step with new India where the entitlement displayed by Priyanka Gandhi has no place.
Perhaps the frustration led to the Priyanka Gandhi outburst and attack on Congress workers in Raebareli where she put the blame on them for the party’s defeat. Priyanka Gandhi seemed spectacularly out of touch and extremely feudal as she berated the workers.
The optics of the entire family being in active politics is also all wrong for India’s oldest political party.
A vignette from election 2019 sums it up. The siblings accompanied by Robert Vadra and his and Priyanka’s two children dressed up as “mini netas” led in a road show to file Gandhi’s nomination from Amethi. Jyotiraditya Scindia did not share their ride, but followed in another vehicle behind them.
The showcasing of the Gandhi parivar made one think that the two kids were the future leaders of the Congress. Gandhi lost Amethi and this portrait and projection of the dynasty was clearly ill-judged.
Sonia Gandhi held the Congress together as long as the party was in power, but the ideological vacuum at the heart of the party has ensured that the voter no longer knows what she is voting for if she votes Congress.
The Congress party has become reactive and plays to Narendra Modi’s masterly agenda setting and narrative. The party kept attacking Modi relentlessly yet showcased no positive agenda of the alternative if it came to power.
Voters want to know what they are voting for and all that Rahul Gandhi offered was that he was the anti-Modi.
This from the natural party of government, which the Congress was, is disastrous. Voters want to know what they are voting for and all that Rahul Gandhi offered was that he was the anti-Modi.
So if Sonia Gandhi entered politics to save the Congress party from imploding, she now has to ensure that the party overcomes this existential crisis. Modi and Amit Shah have worked with single-minded focus that they will disempower the Gandhi family in politics. And they seem to have succeeded as the project also reflects the public mood.
Gandhi has to ensure that the family gets its credibility back. After all the leaders backed the Gandhi family because the family won elections and were the single controller of the party funds.
The first part is no longer true after two general election losses. And as a serious crisis of funds cripples the Congress the second may not be relevant for the long term.
Sonia Gandhi, in her second act, needs to find a successor to the Gandhi family. A tough ask. But, if she can’t do it the Congress party will be history.