When Sonia Gandhi took it upon herself to revive a tottering Congress on the goading of sycophantic partymen who were in abject surrender, her skills as a leader were largely untested. There was only the awe that Congressmen hold any member of the Nehru-Gandhi family in. Fourteen years since then, even her bitter critics will concede that she has been instrumental in raising the stock of the Congress substantially.
Today, Sonia holds complete sway over the party and her word is law for Congressmen who seem to think that she can do no wrong. The downside to it is that whatever little inner-party democracy there was in the party has been snuffed out. Not a mouse squeaks when she takes a decision, good or bad. That is not an achievement for a party that shapes the destiny of the country or a matter of elation for the teeming millions in the country.
True, it is not the Congress alone that is governed by one strong personality with all others in the party effectively marginalised. Several others are one-man or one-woman parties, be it the Trinamool Congress (Mamata Banerjee) or the DMK (M Karunanidhi) or the Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray) or the BSP (Mayawati), to name a few. The BJP is remote-controlled by the RSS, but in the case of the Congress it stands out because of its all-India reach and the fact that the prime minister belongs to that party and is reduced to the status of a virtual supplicant.
While the Congress at least has a second line of leadership, howsoever weak and colourless it may be, the regional parties have no such leadership. The leader does not allow anyone with promise to rise to a stature where he or she may be seen as an alternative.
Take Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Both of them brook no opposition and with no alternative leader built up, their parties are nothing without them. They run their parties like personal fiefdoms in that no one can question their stand on issues. Bal Thackeray is a virtual dictator who has a clear succession plan — who else but his son to succeed him.
So, in the kind of feudal politics that is played in our country and the huge tendency towards hero-worship, it is not surprising that Sonia Gandhi has untrammelled power within her party.
In the current session of Parliament when Sonia gestured to partymen to shout down BJP veteran L K Advani on his remark that the Congress government (whether he meant the central or the Assam government is still unclear) is ‘illegitimate’, the partymen complied dutifully as they always do. Advani was forced to withdraw his remark and the issue on which he was initiating the parliamentary debate — the violence in Assam — was virtually sidestepped in the media and in public debate. Almost the entire focus was on Sonia’s anger.
With a prime minister who has acquired the reputation of being utterly spineless, Sonia often sets the agenda for the UPA government but while he is held accountable for all the government’s misdeeds, Sonia Gandhi wields power without responsibility.
It is public knowledge that one of the most disastrous presidents of independent India, Pratibha Patil, was forced on the Congress, the UPA government and the country at large by none other than Sonia whose lackey she has always been. Several times Pratibha Patil brought disrepute to the high office she held during her presidential tenure but the media never seemed to tell its readers or viewers that she was the chosen one of Sonia Gandhi on whom Congressmen had blindly put the stamp of approval.
As a finale to the disgusting five years she spent in Rashtrapati Bhawan, she took away all the gifts that foreign heads of state and other dignitaries had bestowed on her in her capacity as the country’s president and lodged these in a museum run by a trust overseen by her family. There were murmurs of protest but no challenge to the outgoing president from either the UPA or the Opposition NDA that a convention was being violated and that this was an atrociously immoral act.
Likewise, former Union home minister and now governor of Punjab, Shivraj Patil, whose stewardship of the home ministry was shockingly poor was chosen for the coveted post due to his extreme loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. Now, the new Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde too has little to boast about than the blessings of his mentor, Sonia Gandhi. He is barely a month old in that portfolio but has had to apologise to Samajwadi Party member Jaya Bachchan for mocking at her ability to grasp serious issues since she comes from the tinsel world.
This is not to say that Sonia Gandhi has not appointed those of substance to high positions, but it is a sad commentary on the spinelessness of Congressmen that they do not have the courage to tell her when she puts forward the names of undeserving candidates for high positions.
The combative Sonia that Parliament saw on the Assam imbroglio egging her partymen on to take on Advani had something to do with Shinde being unequal to the task of spearheading the Congress response to Opposition attacks on the mishandling of the Assam violence as Leader of the Lok Sabha.
With the prime minister’s reticence to take pro-active steps, the Congress president has assumed a role that is much bigger than what her predecessors have enjoyed. It is usual for Congressmen to leave the choice of chief minister in Congress-ruled states entirely to her whims.
The same goes in the case of son Rahul Gandhi. Tomorrow if Rahul is catapulted to the prime ministerial chair by a fiat from her, predictably, there would be no open dissent. Congressmen have seen how the likes of Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and P A Sangma were jettisoned from the party because they challenged her supremacy. Now, nobody dares to speak up even mildly against her.
We in India have had a long history of being ruled by alien rulers. In the bargain, we seem to be particularly vulnerable to hero-worship. If the democratic edifice is to be strengthened, it is vital that parties be run on democratic lines and partymen assert themselves in national interest whenever they see something wrong being done. That, however, seems a far cry.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author. E-mail: email@example.com