Tuesday, March 23, 2004

sonia on the ropes

Politics has never been easy for Sonia Gandhi, yet she's grown ever more adept at remaking both herself and her once-dominant party. Now, as elections loom, is it all too little, too late?

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2004).

SONIA GANDHI didn't come to Kaudiram, a crowded and dusty town in Uttar Pradesh, to pull her punches. Over a booming public-address system set up at the city bus station, the Italian-born president of India's Congress Party kicked off her national election campaign with a strident assault on the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Calling Vajpayee's government incompetent and corrupt, the custodian of the dynasty begun by Jawaharlal Nehru unveiled a new willingness to go for the throat.

With polls approaching in April, the Congress Party--credited with gaining India's independence from Britain--is fighting for survival. It was defeated in the country's last two national elections and suffered disastrous losses in December's state assembly polls. If Vajpayee wins a third term as prime minister, it will be the first time anyone from outside the Congress has managed the feat. A second victory over Sonia would also signal an end to the politics of hereditary dynasties that have shaped India's history since 1947.

"The last person from the Gandhi family who won elections for Congress was Mrs. Gandhi's dead body in 1984," says Pramod Mahajan, chief campaign strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant partner in India's governing coalition. Since that election, when Congress won 400-plus parliamentary seats after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party's performance has steadily waned.

The BJP, meanwhile, has gone from two seats in 1984 to 180 today, and is tipped to do even better this time out. Vajpayee, a 50-year election veteran and brilliant orator, leads India at a time of political d├ętente with Pakistan and with the economy booming. By contrast, Gandhi is facing probably her toughest challenge yet in what has always been a reluctant political career--one that only began when, first, her mother-in-law, Indira, and later her husband, Rajiv, were killed by assassins.

Faced with this crisis, Sonia has begun to reinvent herself and the party. She has finally become a politician--seeking friends and embracing the media. Few doubt she has made a genuine attempt to turn Congress--and herself--around, but the question remains, is it all too little, too late?

As the young and exotic wife of Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of India's first family, and then as his grieving widow, Sonia might well have become India's Jackie O. But because of her own reluctance to sacrifice her private life, and her advisers' desire to "protect" and thereby control her, she instead became India's Al Gore--seen to be clumsily acting out the instructions of a coterie of handlers. "She's still uncomfortable being a politician," explains Rajesh Tripathi, a Congress leader. "With people she's not at ease. She doesn't have the quality that her mother-in-law had, and Rajiv was a natural also."

Sonia Gandhi only entered active politics in 1998, seven years after Rajiv's assassination, when she finally yielded to Congress leaders' pleas and took over the helm of the party her husband once led. Although still relatively inexperienced, her confidence has appeared to grow in the role. "In the last seven years, she has matured," says Digvijay Singh, former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and one of Sonia's closest advisers. "She's understanding the issues, she's taking stands."

Singh, along with other pundits, saw the emergence of this new avatar when Sonia, as leader of the opposition, delivered a withering motion of no confidence in the Vajpayee government in August. "The very fact that her charge sheet was never replied to [by Vajpayee]" illustrates how much better she's become at the game, says Singh.

Singh credits Sonia for her democratic style, which has brought "consensus politics" to the Congress. In party meetings, she prefers to listen to all sides before weighing in with her opinion. She takes copious notes, which discourages party members from flip-flopping on their stands. Unlike Indira and Rajiv, she doesn't try to micromanage the states under Congress' control, and that has won her respect, if not the awe her predecessors inspired.

But that consultative approach has its limitations, Singh admits: "The leader has to lead, rather than be led." Today, he says, the Gandhi widow has begun to do precisely that.

To start, Gandhi worked to convince Congress that unless it worked with other parties it had no chance of regaining power. Realizing that the once-dominant Congress would have to show humility, she opted to leave the party's choice for prime minister open for now, and has emphasized repeatedly that the party and its partners will select their leader--together--only after the polls. That's a clear change of tactics from 1999, when the election was seen as a presidential-style race between Vajpayee and Gandhi. That move, coupled with personal approaches by Gandhi, has won Congress some potentially important allies in the electorally significant states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

More importantly, perhaps, Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow--who did not become an Indian citizen until 1983--has also realized that her surname won't be enough to win her the election. She hit the campaign trail with a new political personality, endeavouring to overcome her natural reserve and, if such a thing can be accomplished by an act of will, to make herself lovable. Her first target: Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

When Sonia embarked on a gruelling, three-day pilgrimage through the eastern part of the state in February, thousands of villagers lined the road along her convoy's route. In some places they were crowded on rooftops and gathered four rows deep on the roadside. "This is how you have to reach these people," says Congress's Rajesh Tripathi, who travelled with the convoy.

And yet, he adds, "she has to do it more intensely. She has to have more exposure, and it has to be an audience like this." Those comments reflect a common perception of Gandhi's relationship with the voters. "Her basic problem remains the same," says Rasheed Kidwai, veteran reporter and author of Sonia, an unauthorized biography of the Congress president. "She's not very open. That's her nature."

So why does she do it--why did she decide to leave the privacy of domestic life and plunge into Indian politics? Tripathi recalls once asking her a similar question. "Do you really think I have a choice?" she replied.

"Over a period of time," comments Kidwai, "she slowly got into believing that the party needed her, the country needed her, and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty demanded that she keep the communal forces at bay." A turning point came in 1992, when the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu fanatics stirred to passion by BJP stalwarts L.K. Advani and Uma Bharti, now deputy prime minister and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, respectively. According to Singh, it was this "absolute" commitment to the fight against the various chauvinist groups threatening Nehru's idea of India that brought Sonia into the fray--after much pressure from the party.

"She's the only person who has a global vision . . . that goes beyond a parochial, local, regional view," echoes Salman Khurshid, former Congress president in Uttar Pradesh. "Then she is extremely secular and extremely liberal, again, in the mould in which we had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and so on. Maybe we're not being able to sell it properly, but that should be a strength."

Indeed, Congress's "selling" of Sonia has at times been lamentable. Incomprehensibly for a major politician, Sonia, who speaks fluent, if heavily accented, Hindi, waited until late in the campaign before giving her first-ever extensive interview, in two appearances on the television programme Walk the Talk with Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. That reticence contrasts sharply with the openness of the avuncular Vajpayee. "She's absolutely an unknown entity," says Kidwai. "People are prepared to accept shortcomings. . . . The issue of foreign origins--the Indian people are prepared to accept that--but they want to know who she is, and what she is all about."

In a signal that her opponents smell blood in the water, early on the BJP took to calling this campaign a contest between Vajpayee and "the Question Mark." Sonia's appearances on Walk the Talk seemed an effort at rebuttal. The results were mixed. While Gandhi shed some of her reserve and occasionally seemed to speak from the heart, her suspicions about her interviewer's motives were transparent, and at one point she allowed herself to be trapped into parrying a question with a damning, "I wouldn't want to discuss it now."

For the time being, at least, the party's answer appears to be more Gandhi, rather than less. Congress workers are pushing Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, to join the campaign. That hints at another reason why the party's president soldiers on: She knows this is a relay race and she's carrying the torch.

Will she falter? Is this the end of the dynasty? The BJP is bullish: "I'm afraid this time they may not even get the three-figure mark" in seats, says Mahajan, the campaign strategist. While there is some speculation that Gandhi may step down if Congress does as badly as predicted, Mahajan--like many others--believes that for now she's all Congress has. "Sonia is their biggest liability, and still she is their biggest asset because there is no [other] unifying force," he adds. "It's a Catch-22 situation for them."

Sonia herself has said she'll take losing in stride, if she has to. Asked on television if a loss would spell the end of her political career, she responded: "I have certain duties which I have to fulfil, about which I have spoken earlier. And there's no turning back."