A line often quoted by columnists, and attributed to the British politician and writer Enoch Powell is this: ‘All political lives end in failure’. The full form of the quote reads: ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’
The abbreviated form of the quote applies forcefully to four former Prime Ministers of India: Jawaharlal Nehru, P. V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh. They were all Prime Ministers of considerable achievement. Nehru played a key role in establishing multi-party democracy in India, and in giving the country a scientific and technological base; Rao helped bring about economic liberalization; Vajpayee led the first non-Congress Government to enjoy a full five year term in office; Manmohan Singh presided over a decade of robust economic growth. Yet their political lives all ended in failure. Over Nehru hung the shadow of the China war; Rao was virtually thrown out of his own party; Vajpayee lost an election he was supposed to comfortably win; Singh left amidst a blaze of negative publicity following the exposure of widespread corruption by his Government and his Cabinet Ministers.
Three other former Prime Ministers fit more into the scheme of Powell’s caveat, in that their political lives were cut off in midstream, albeit not at a happy juncture but in a tragic manner. These were Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succumbed to a heart attack after a mere year-and-a-half in office; and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom were murdered. Shastri was sixty-three; Indira sixty-six; Rajiv, a mere forty-six. All three looked forward to many more years in politics had they not so unexpectedly died.
Sonia Gandhi was never Prime Minister; but for a full ten years she was the most powerful politician in India. After one early speech in Varanasi where she fell and badly injured herself, Sonia Gandhi did not campaign in the round of Assembly elections that has just ended. Shortly before counting began, she left for medical treatment overseas. In the event, her party suffered a humilating defeat in India’s largest state, the state where she and all other members of her family had themselves fought and won elections from. Her political life has now effectively ended; and it might therefore be appropriate to assess her career as a whole, its highs and its lows, its successes and its failures.
It is now almost twenty years since Sonia Gandhi entered party politics—and at the very top, as the President of the Congress. At first, few took her seriously. She was dismissed as a goongi gudiya, just as Indira Gandhi had been when she unexpectedly became Prime Minister in 1966. The second Mrs Gandhi was an indifferent speaker, her Hindi, while grammatical enough, heavily betraying her Italian origins. Yet she attracted crowds and, in time, attention. Soon, scepticism and contempt turned to a grudging appreciation, as the Congress, apparently headed for terminal decline when she took over as President in 1998, began to win a spate of assembly elections in large, important states such as Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh.
Sonia Gandhi’s early successes owed themselves to three factors. There was a fair deal of public sympathy for her; for she had seen her mother-in-law murdered before her eyes, and seen her beloved husband assassinated too. Back in the late 1990s, when she became Congress President, the Nehru-Gandhi still had some mystique about it; many voters remembered Nehru, many more, Indira and Rajiv. Finally, Sonia Gandhi was also extremely hardworking, travelling to all parts of India and campaigning around the clock, and while in Delhi meeting with political workers from morning to evening.
Sonia Gandhi’s persistence finally led to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s surprising victory in the General Elections of 2004. Five years later, the Congress and UPA increased their seat tally, comfortably winning re-election at a national level. The Indian media tends to judge political success through the narrow prism of electoral victories.By this token alone, Sonia Gandhi was extremely successful in her first decade in politics. But she also made other important contributions to public affairs: as in her stewardship of the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the former bringing at least some element of transparency to a notoriously opaque and secretive Government, the latter providing a safety net to the rural poor.
Sonia Gandhi’s successes in Indian politics were counter-intuitive and altogether unexpected. 2009 was veritably the high-point of her career which, thereafter, began to slide slowly downwards. The corruption scandals associated with the Commonwealth Games began the slide; followed by the exposé of the even bigger scandals involving telecom and mining rights. Her silence, once a source of wonder and mystique, now began to be seen as a sign of complicity, as she would not answer the charges laid against her Government by an increasingly vocal media and by the popular movement of which Anna Hazare was a symbol. Then came Narendra Modi’s dramatic and triumphant election campaign of 2013-4, and the reduction of the Congress to a mere 44 seats. The series of electoral defeats that have followed in Congress-ruled states such as Haryana, Maharashtra and Assam deepened the descent; and with the humiliation in UP it has reached its very nadir.
As with Sonia Gandhi’s political rise, her political decline also owes itself to a number of factors. One is that she brought back the High Command culture in the Congress, whereby advisers of the party President in New Delhi were trusted more than major regional leaders and State Chief Ministers. Over time, this led to growing disenchantment in State units, and a loss of morale among cadres. Furthering this process was the cult of the First Family that Sonia Gandhi sought to promote. When it would have made far more political sense to name prestigious projects after important Congressmen from the state where the project was located, this was inevitably named after a member of th Nehru-Gandhi family. Two such examples were the sea link in Mumbai, named after Rajiv Gandhi when it could have more sensibly been named after Y. B. Chavan; and the Hyderabad Airport, named (again) after Rajiv Gandhi when it could have named for P. V. Narasimha Rao.
The history of the Congress is deep and also truly pan-Indian. A more broad-minded, inclusive, leader would have promoted major Congress leaders, dead or alive, from all parts of the country. Tragically, Sonia Gandhi’s obsession with her family, her equation of the history of her party with her family, extended not just backwards into the past, but also forwards into the future. Thus the elevation of her son Rahul, although he lacked the energy and ambition to be a successful political leader, and was manifestly inferior in both respects to Congress leaders of his own generation.
Sonia Gandhi is still a Member of Parliament. She is still President of the Congress. But it is fair to say that after the General Elections of 2014 and the UP elections of 2017 it is impossible for her to ever regain an important place in Indian politics. Hence this column, a provisional assessment of her two decades in political life. It remains only to say that in its overall trajectory, Sonia Gandhi’s political career markedly resembles the political careers of three other members of her family. Nehru enjoyed stunning political success for many years, but from 1959 his fortunes started declining. Between 1969 and 1975 Indira Gandhi was hugely and massively admired across India for her economic and military policies; but from the Emergency onwards her record and reputation became more mixed. In the first few years of his Prime Ministership, Rajiv Gandhi won plaudits for forging accords with seccessionists, and for promoting cutting-edge technologies; then came the successive appeasement of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists, and the Bofors scandal. Sonia Gandhi’s political life has mirrored all of these; in experiencing success and achievement in the first phase, but decline and failure in the second.
There is thus a markedly family feel to the arc of Sonia Gandhi’s life in Indian politics. However, her son Rahul may prove an exception to the rule; in never knowing success at all.
THE POLITICAL CAREER OF SONIA GANDHI
(published in The Telegraph, 18th March 2017)