End game? Saluting Sonia and other golden oldies of Indian politics

With counting of votes over and a new government ready to rule, many powerful leaders face political oblivion. A list of the top of the heap.

Published: 26th May 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th May 2019 05:27 PM   |  A+A-

Sonia Gandhi (EPS | Shekhar Yadav)

Sonia Gandhi (EPS | Shekhar Yadav)

Old politicians don’t say bye. They simply fade away. Across India, leaders who once held sway over the republic and ranks, unfulfilled Prime Ministers-in-waiting and regional leviathans who with a sneeze could give New Delhi a cold are past their sell-by date. Illnesses, age, lack of supporters and unexpected usurpers have put many of them on the last train to Noddy Land. Not all though; some like Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav hold the reins of their parties firmly in their capable hands.

Most important is Sonia, the undisputed Empress of the Congress, who has perhaps seen her last election. Having steered her organisation and family through turbulent times, endured personal tragedy and betrayal, she is still the face of the party.

Express Photo: Shekhar Yadav

In spite of her son’s relentless campaigning and new-found cockiness, her deployment of daughter Priyanka has enthused the cadres, whose tonic has been the Gandhi charisma sadly lacking in her hardworking brother.

Two-time PM and father of India’s economic reform, Dr Manmohan Singh, has been mistakenly called a non-political animal: decency was his armour, which was used to sanctify the country’s highest office. He had words to say during this election about Narendra Modi but the gardeners of Delhi’s grapevine have cultivated suggestions that the ventriloquist is someone else. 

Stalwarts of the old BJP, who had treated Sonia with courtesy under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have been handed yellow slips. Most prominent is his ‘Lakshman’ Lal Krishna Advani, who missed the prime ministerial chair twice. He has been put to pasture by his one-time protégé, Modi. He is bitter about his exile, like his former brothers-in-arms Yashwant Sinha and Murli Manohar Joshi, who are more bluster than base.

India’s stellar foreign minister Sushma Swaraj hung up her boots after a kidney transplant. However, retirement has been thrust on veterans such as Kalraj Mishra and Sumitra Mahajan since they are no longer vote catchers. Rasheed Kidwai, who authored a book on Sonia, says, “Times have changed. To remain relevant, one has to continuously re-invent himself. Political stalwarts tend to fade away once they are no longer at the helm of affairs, unless their legacy is re-invented. In their own lifetime, people become a pale shadow of their earlier selves. Legacy is time-bound.”

The elections in India’s regional landscape will never be the same without state satraps like Sharad Pawar, who cut his teeth in Maratha politics and created his personal fiefdom, the NCP. He hopes it would have a worthy inheritor in his daughter Supriya Sule, a political lightweight and MP from Baramati, the constituency he has nurtured over decades. Down South, HD Deve Gowda, the 11th Prime Minister of India who was installed in 7, Race Course Road, now Lok Kalyan Marg, by TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu, has left matters to son HD Kumaraswamy.

Gowda’s only national contribution was to enter ‘ragi balls’ (ragi mudda) briefly in the political lexicon unlike in his home state of Karnataka where he holds the keys of Janata Dal (Secular). Parkash Singh Badal, the grand old man of Punjab politics and a powerhouse, both in his state and in the NDA, has passed the baton to son Sukhbir and daughter-in-law Harsimrat. S Venkat Narayan, author of a book on NT Rama Rao, says, “So long as they are active in politics, the party enjoys the rich dividends a stalwart reaps. But the moment they lose their Midas touch, they are reduced to irrelevance. Their legacy simply comes to a halt.”

Uttar Pradesh, which has the country’s most Lok Sabha MPs, has always been India’s heart of power. Eight Prime Ministers, many wannabe PMs and countless ministers and power players such as Kamalapati Tripathi were politically baptised there. In spite of the BJP’s score, Samajwadi Party’s founder Mulayam Singh Yadav hasn’t given up on his dreams of being PM. He has left the business of party governance to son Akhilesh, whom he installed as CM over his brother Shivpal. Yet, Sonia values his presence in the UPA for playing a powerful role in the gathbandhan engineered by Akhilesh and SP’s frenemy Mayawati.

The chief of RLD, Ajit Singh who took over from his father and short-time Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh has lost his bite, though he still enters candidates in the fray. Singh’s caste politics has a buy-in in UP, but the banker-turned-dynast never acquired papa’s political savvy. In the East, the enigmatic Chief Minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik is a prize for a national government that needs coalition support. He severed ties with the BJP after the Kandhamal riots, but has supported it on occasions in the Parliament. His power base has been eroded by Amit Shah’s depredatory campaigns—once his time in state politics is over, the party may face an existential crisis. 

Former Union minister, Chief Minister and Congressman AK Antony, discredited CPI(M) warhorse VS Achuthanandan, J&K’s original rockstar politician Farooq Abdullah and others are unlikely to enter the fray five years later. The rule is that old icons take the last bus out. Some of them board it unwillingly. Some are still in the driver’s seat, but have nowhere to go.

Sleeping Giant

HD Deve Gowda, 85, JD(S)

In active politics since 1953
Strength: Vokkaliga base and popular respect
Weakness: Lack of national relevance
Opportunity: Becoming a national player
Threat: BJP 

He is no longer the Prime Minister-in-dozing, as many cartoonists depicted him. He woke up his party when he publicly spoke of removing himself from the race to the Hot Seat in spite of Prakash Ambedkar calling him a dark horse. The temple-hopping Vokkaliga absolutist is the glue that holds the precarious Congress-JD(S) coalition going.

He has now stepped into the mentor’s role for both his son, HD Kumaraswamy, the beleaguered Chief Minister of Karnataka, and the Gandhi scion. Gowda plays Krishna to Rahul’s Arjuna and is again actively working to put together an alternative to the NDA. It’s Gowda’s job to keep his volatile dynasty on track, giving his own Hassan Lok Sabha seat to grandson Prajwal Revanna and choosing Tumkur over Bangalore North—he has never been a favourite of urban voters. The man whom Omar Abdullah famously called ‘irrelevant’ is far from being a has-been in state politics though he has taken to the political armchair more than the chair itself.

The Grand Mother

Sonia Gandhi, 72, Congress
In active politics since 1998

Strength: Beacon of Opposition unity, she commands their and her party’s respect
Weakness: Poor health and Rahul Gandhi
Opportunity: Expanding influence
Threats: BJP’s extreme hatred of the Gandhis

The second Mrs Gandhi was a reluctant politician in the beginning years. Over time she became the most powerful national woman politician alive and the longest serving Congress President (1998 to 2017). ‘Goongi gudiya’ Indira Gandhi destroyed her opponents and her Italy-born daughter-in-law Sonia was a silent, but ardent pupil. She was responsible for making PV Narasimha Rao the PM—a relationship that soured after the Babri mosque demolition—after Shankar Dayal Sharma refused her offer first. Today, the matriarch of the Grand Old Party stands at the crossroads of her party’s and dynasty’s survival.

She hardly campaigned in Election 2019, but ignored her health setbacks to contest from Raebareli. 10 Janpath became the ground zero for Opposition unity with all major leaders calling on her. She massaged the massive egos of regional stalwarts such as Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar. She knows the Gandhis have faced many setbacks despite the name. Previously she had been marginalised first by Rao and then Sitaram Kesri who almost sent the Gandhis to oblivion. She has left the party in Rahul’s hands but has deployed as his mascot daughter Priyanka who tested her mass connect for the first time this year.

Power Puppeteer

Sharad Pawar, 78, NCP
In active politics since 1967

Strength: Consensus guru respected by allies and foes alike
Weakness: No political base
Opportunity: To be Opposition’s anchor
Threat: Faction fight in family and party

One of the Prime Ministers-in-waiting forever, Pawar’s role is now that of the kingmaker. He is the ultimate Maratha satrap, though affinity is towards the Congress instead of the BJP and whose ally Shiv Sena is his longstanding enemy. The significance of his refusal to contest this time shocked his alliance partners. One interpretation is that he is at last ready to leave the party in the hands of his daughter Supriya Sule, who is yet to make a mark in state or national politics unlike her august father. The not-so-subterranean struggle for control of the NCP between nephew Ajit Pawar and Supriya could erupt into an Armageddon any time.

The cancer survivor addressed over 80 meetings this election. Pawar’s advantages are his reputation as a leader, a person who commands respect across party lines, an able administrator, consensus generator in a fractious five-year alliance—all signs of the fast-fading generation of old-style politicians. In spite of election rhetoric, Prime Minister Modi has a cordial equation with Pawar, who he claims “helped me walk by holding my finger”. Though he has dismissed all claims of retirement, Pawar named Mamata Banerjee, N Chandrababu Naidu and Mayawati as top PM candidates, denying that he himself is in the race. 

Silent Speaker

Manmohan Singh, 86, Congress
In active politics since 1991
Strength: Sterling Mr Clean reputation as India’s reformer 
Weakness: No political base
Opportunity: Redeeming his legacy
Threat: No Rajya Sabha vacancy in sight

This economist-turned-politician changed the course of India’s economic and social destiny as Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet in 1991. Later as Prime Minister of India, his eloquent silence in the face of personal criticism and that of his policies brought respect and honesty to the office. Of late, he has been ailing. But it hasn’t stopped him from taking the Modi government to task over its finance policies and decisions. If the Congress is serious about the socio-economic ‘Nyay scheme’ mentioned in its manifesto, the party would need Dr Singh by its side. However, he is unlikely to be corralled for the purpose by Rahul Gandhi’s MacBook gang and millennials who speak another economic and political language. A five-time Rajya Sabha MP, Singh’s tenure ends in June and he will have to keep out of the Upper House until a sitting member resigns after elected to the Lok Sabha.

Winter of the Patriarch

L K Advani, 91, BJP
In active politics since 1951

Strength: Patriarch status
Weakness: Muhammad Ali Jinnah
Opportunity: Fighting irrelevance
Threat: New BJP

Where does one begin with this stalwart politician who was the first to bring ‘Ram’ into politics and was called the hawk of Hindutva? Now in his sunset years, the party he helped build has no use of him. He had hoped that the BJP would make him the President after Pranab Mukherjee’s term got over. That didn’t happen. He was denied a party post and made a marg darshak, which is Modispeak for ‘out in the cold’. His faithful constituency Gandhinagar went to party chief Amit Shah this time.

Party scuttlebutt is that his request to get daughter Pratibha a ticket was denied. Nor was he drafted to campaign this time. He has hardly spoken a word in the last five years, and confines his fire to his blog posts. The man, who was prosecuted for playing a role in the Babri Masjid destruction and created history by powering the BJP’s Hindutva dream with his legendary Rath Yatra, has been ejected from the chariot of the future for good.

Odisha’s Last Moghul

Naveen Patnaik, 72, BJD
 In active politics since 1997

Strength: Undisputed mass leader
Weakness: No successor
Opportunity: Playing kingmaker
Threat: BJP and ousted rebels

Chief Minister of Odisha for almost close to two decades, Naveen Babu faced his most extreme acid test this election. Wisely keeping away from the Centre, which he left in 2009, he has been fighting hard to keep the BJP from taking Odisha. Over the last two terms, he has become reclusive, keeping only a tight circle of trusted ministers and bureaucrats around him, unforgiving of criticism or dissent. The BJP’s performance in Odisha is an indication that the BJD’s magic is at risk, but Naveen’s personal popularity is unchallenged even after nearly 20 years. Plagued by rumours of ill health, the CM released footage of himself hitting the gym. But once he retires, the legacy of the Patnaiks could be confined to the textbooks along with the party he founded.

Stabled Scholar

Murli Manohar Joshi, 85, BJP
In active politics since 1977

Strength: Party veteran
Weakness: Advanced age and poor mass base
Opportunity: NONE
Threat: New BJP leadership

In 2014, he had to give up his Varanasi seat for Narendra Modi, and contest from Kanpur. In 2019, even the Kanpur seat was lost because the party’s superannuation rule prevented him from getting a ticket, similar to old colleague Lalji Tandon who had to vacate his Lucknow constituency for Rajnath Singh. But Joshi is no Advani. He publicly stated that his party asked him not to contest. As HRD minister in Vajpayee’s coalition government, he was the first politician to push the saffron agenda in education, like pushing to make astrology a formal academic discipline. His position as Hindutva’s educationist-in-chief has also been usurped by saffron historians such as Y Sudershan Rao and Dina Nath Batra. Once part of the inner circle that included LK Advani, Joshi cannot live down his association with the pluralistic old guard. 

Wily Wrestler

Mulayam Singh Yadav, 79, SP
In active politics since 1967

Strength: Veteran status and good relationship with all parties
Weakness: Poor health and family infighting
Opportunity: Retaining national relevance
Threat: BJP government and Shivpal Yadav 

He is the first politician to redefine politics in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere with a singular style of chutzpah, strong arm tactics, backwards championship, caste consolidation and rustic reality. A three-time Chief Minister, the SP patriarch has faced a troubled five years of transition since 2012. After irascibly installing son Akhilesh as his successor, Mulayam occasionally finds himself in an Advanisque condition. His last throw of dice is perhaps this year; with son firmly ensconced in the state, Mulayam is looking at resurrecting his old dream of achieving national glory. Allying with Mayawati was ostensibly Akhilesh’s plan, but happened only after Mulayam’s approval, for this is not the first time they fought polls together and shared power. He publicly sought votes this time by declaring that this is his last election. It’s now or never for the wrestler from Etawah. 

Jat’s the Matter 

Ajit Singh, 80, RLD
In active politics since 1986

Strength: Jat supremo status
Weakness: No longer a national power player
Opportunity: Supporting son Jayant’s career
Threat: Shrinking base in western UP

In new India, age is not on his side. The BJP’s rule of putting veterans past 70 to pasture has not rubbed off on other parties. The Jat heavyweight left his banker’s job in the US to take the place of his father Chaudhary Charan Singh, known as India’s most reviled defector. Since then he has been General Secretary of the now-defunct Janata Dal, a power player in government formation in 1989 and a Central minister in many Cabinets irrespective of ideology. Adept at playing the combination-permutation game in politics, Singh had been at the Centre on-and-off from 1989 to 2014. Since 2014, RLD’s Jat and Muslim base has weakened along with the support of farmers in his stronghold, western UP. In the 2017 UP polls, his party’s vote share shrunk to 1.8 percent compared to 2.33 percent in 2012. Reviving the party’s fortunes is son Jayant’s job now.

Lasting Lady

Sheila Dikshit, 81, Congress
 In active politics since 1984

Strength: Reputation as strong administrator and Brahmin tag
Weakness: Age and party detractors
Opportunity: Reviving Congress in state
Threat: AAP and BJP

The longest-serving Chief Minister of Delhi till greenhorn Arvind Kejriwal and his newbie party AAP upset her apple cart, Sheila has a habit of popping in and out of near-extinction. The UPA appointed her as Governor of Kerala in March, 2014, a post she gave up after BJP came to power. Then she was made the party’s CM candidate in the 2016 UP polls at the behest of strategist Prashant Kishore who wanted a credible Brahmin face—but she withdrew. In 2019, she was made the Delhi party chief thanks to her seamless relationship with both generations of the Gandhis and familiarity with state politics. With the Congress unlikely to outdo main contenders AAP and BJP in next year’s state elections, Sheila is likely to withdraw from politics for good. 

Punjab da Papaji

Parkash Singh Badal, 91, SAD
In active politics since 1947

Strength: Loyal Akali base
Weakness: Age 
Opportunity: Leveraging Centre for more political equity
Threat: AAP and Congress

India’s oldest political leader and patriarch of the Shiromani Akali Dal is not an easy read. A staunch BJP ally, he said last week that the guilty in the Gujarat riots should be punished too—not just the perpetrators of the Sikh riots. The Congress is anathema to the five-time Chief Minister after Operation Blue Star, who this time compared Congress President Rahul Gandhi to an ant pitted against ‘elephant’ Narendra Modi.

Often called the Nelson Mandela of Indian politics, Badal still holds the party in his firm grip, though son Sukhbir is the party President and daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur was a minister in the Modi Cabinet. The SAD faces an acid test of survival in the state after the Congress performance in the Lok Sabha and state polls ousting the SAD-BJP alliance in 2017 with 77 seats. By the time SAD’s next face-off in the state comes in 2022, Badal would be a ripe 94.


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