In her early years as Congress President, Sonia Gandhi was treated as a political lightweight, by her opponents and independent commentators alike. Her public persona exuded diffidence. She spoke English inadequately. Her Hindi was worse. Her command of both languages was made more imperfect by the thick Italian accent in which the words were couched (and often obscured). However, even if the role of orator never quite became her, over time she became more assured on the podium. More to the point, the party under her leadership and by her canvassing began to win assembly elections. At one stage, while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was in power in New Delhi, the Congress controlled as many as fifteen State Governments.

From the year 2001 or thereabouts the BJP began taking Sonia Gandhi seriously. As the General Elections approached the attacks on her became more shrill. The most vicious personal abuse came, naturally, from the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. He claimed that if the Congress won it would bring about ‘Rome Raj’. However, the language used by other BJP leaders to describe the Congress President was not always parliamentary either. Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, L. K. Advani—they all competed with one another in casting aspersions on Mrs Gandhi’s character. (Atal Behari Vajpayee, alone, did not join the fray.)

The BJP’s attacks on Sonia Gandhi showed the Hindu mind at its most bigoted. Rarely did they take up for critical examination the statements on public policy of the Congress President. Rather, they insinuated that since she was a woman, a widow, a Christian, and foreign-born, she was not worthy to live in India, still less contribute to its politics. To her credit, Mrs Gandhi did not answer in kind. She aimed her own criticisms at the policies of the BJP-led Government, not at the personal character of its leaders. This strategy was rewarded, and vindicated, by the victory of the United Progressive Alliance in the elections of 2004.

Recent events indicate, however, that the Congress President is succumbing to the dangerous game of focusing on personalities rather than policies. I refer to her recent resignation from Parliament, which, in my view, is a farcical reprise of her brave and much-applauded refusal to accept the office of Prime Minister in 2004. Some commentators have termed the resignation a ‘drama’. However, the Hindi language offers a much better and more pointed word, namely, ‘natak’.

The debate in Parliament, and outside it, had raised serious issues about what does and does not constitute an ‘office of profit’. Rather than discuss these openly, and on their merits, the Government sought to adjourn Parliament and pass an Ordinance that aimed at protecting the Congress President. When the sleight-of-hand provoked protest, Sonia Gandhi sought likewise to duck the debate by announcing her resignation. Her partymates have represented this as a call of conscience, a much needed infusion of morality in a generally immoral politics. However, the natak is better understood as an attempt to substitute, for the dispassionate discussion of policy, the sentimental and somewhat hysterical celebration of personality.

In this attempt to personalize issues of policy, the Congress President departs from the traditions of her predecessor Jawaharlal Nehru. A Canadian diplomat once wrote of Nehru that ‘there is no one since Napoleon who has played both so large a role in the history of his country and has also held the sort of place which Nehru holds in the hearts and minds of his countrymen. For the people of India, he is George Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower rolled into one’. In other words, Nehru enjoyed the kind of elevated status that Sonia Gandhi cannot even pretend to aspire to. Yet, in his own politics, Nehru never focused on himself, on his character or his alleged indispensability to party and nation. He fought and won elections, and won and lost debates in Parliament, on such impersonal issues as secularism, socialism, non-alignment, and economic development, these discussed on their own merits, not with regard to the biodata of the speaker.

To their credit, Nehru’s opponents were on the same wave-length as he. Whether it be Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and his Jana Sangh, or Hiren Mukherjee and his Communist Party, or Minoo Masani and his Swatantra Party, these leaders and parties sought to present themselves as political alternatives to the ruling Congress. Although they savaged Nehru’s policies they never spoke disparagingly of his personality.

The one exception to this general trend was that maverick socialist Ram Manohar Lohia. His distaste for Jawaharlal Nehru was as much personal as it was political. Later, he refined his penchant for character assassination at the expense of the third Prime Minister of India, whom he dismissed as a ghungi gudiya (dumb doll).

Lohia died in 1967, but his legacy was carried on and corroded by the ‘anti-Congressism’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Before the 1971 elections, the Opposition sought to unite under the campaign slogan of ‘Indira Hatao!’ The Prime Minister answered that her own party stood for ‘Garibi Hatao!’ It was an inspired coinage, if only because it went beyond personalities to substantive issues of policy. However, after her victory in the 1971 elections, Mrs Indira Gandhi increasingly came to identify the nation’s future with her own. A creeping authoritarianism became rampant with the promulgation of the Emergency in June 1975, an act designed exclusively to protect the Prime Minister after an adverse judgement against her in the Allahabad High Court.

Her actions from 1972 to 1977 confirmed the belief of the Congress party that ‘Indira is India, and India is Indira’. This personalizing of politics was principally responsible for the Congress’s defeat in the elections of 1977. Three years later the party returned to power. Now the eminent political scientist Basheerudin Ahmad wrote advising the Prime Minister to remake the party as ‘the palpably real institution that the Congress was under Nehru’. For it was ‘essential that a sharing of power replace its personalisation, that a leadership drawing its power from the grassroots rather than above should be allowed to emerge’. Indira Gandhi’s ‘restored charisma’, said Professor Ahmad, could then be used ‘in the service of shoring-up and reinforcing the institutions of an open polity before it dissipates again as in the past’.

The sentiments were at once noble and naïve. For it was not just the Congress party that Indira Gandhi believed she embodied, but the Indian Nation itself. In May 1980 she told a visiting journalist of how ‘for many long years I have been the target of attack [from] individual, groups and parties’, these either ‘Hindu and Muslim fanatics’, or ‘old feudal interests’, or ‘sympathetic to foreign ideologies’. Where she stood ‘for India’s unfettered independence of action, self-reliance and economic strength…’, those ‘who are against self-reliance, or secularism or socialism find some reason or other to malign me’. Ram Manohar Lohia was long dead, but here was Indira Gandhi accepting his invitation to identify the fate of India with her own personality. ‘Whatever Indira stands for is bad because she stands for them’, claimed Lohia and his successors. ‘Whatever Indira stands for is good because she stands for them’, answered the Prime Minister and her followers.

The Congress party, like India itself, is an institution with multiple histories, histories that sometimes contradict and cancel out one other. Although they each were Prime Minister for a decade-and-a-half, and although they were father and daughter, the political styles of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi could not have been more opposed. One submerged his personality to the needs of his party and nation, the other identified the party and nation with her own self. As the most powerful person in the Congress today, and hence also the most powerful Indian now living, Sonia Gandhi has sometimes shown signs of following in the footsteps of the one, at other times in the footsteps of the other. Perhaps the time has come to make an unambiguous choice, to declare a preference to the Indian people.