The story should have had a fairy-tale ending: a beautiful young girl meets her handsome Prince Charming, has two children, and lives happily every after. In 1968, however, when Sonia Maino married Rajiv Gandhi of India, the fairy tale was only half realized. She snagged a handsome prince, but she also inherited the troubled history of his country. Rajiv Gandhi was a member of a family that had ruled India since the 1940s.
His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister, and his mother, Indira Gandhi, held that office throughout the 1970s. Rajiv himself briefly served as prime minister in the 1980s, but was assassinated in 1991 as he attempted to reclaim the post. Almost a decade after her husband's death, Sonia Gandhi reluctantly followed in her famous family's footsteps by entering politics.
In 2004, after serving as president of India's Congress Party, she was called upon by members of Parliament to take up the reins of prime minister. Gandhi shocked the nation, and the world, when she declined. Members of the opposition breathed a sigh of relief, but others feared that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had come to an end.
What does Sonia Gandhi's interview with Rajdeep tell us: Congress has outlived its utility
The recent interview of Sonia Gandhi conducted by Rajdeep Sardesai was notable for two key takeaways: first, the dynastic air of imperious distance remained intact, kindling images from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the classic that powerfully documents the details of the last days of the downfall of a once-mighty aristocratic family.
The second takeaway is more interesting. Perhaps for the first time since the fateful May of 2014 has Sonia Gandhi openly betrayed hints of nervousness. It's not what she actually said in that "vanilla script and candy floss questions" interview that’s important but what she didn’t say and what questions were not asked that merit examination.
Indeed, it’s incredible how both Sonia and Rajdeep still continue to live in the illusion that she must still be treated with fawning reverence even after presiding over the most comprehensive, decade-long national loot under her watch, and, to borrow Natwar Singh’s words, for “reducing the Congress party to a rump of 44 seats.” It's for this reason that the interview was criticised by many.
But more devastatingly, just a day before the Sonia interview, the committed, lapsed-Marxist Ramachandra Guha in Hindustan Times said in so many words that the Congress "should perish for India to flourish." His disillusionment with the Congress culminated in the aforequoted piece given how just two months ago, in September, he had called for Rahul Gandhi to step down, get married and start a family as the only way to rescue whatever is left of the Congress:
For a long time, I nostalgically thought the Congress could revive, but I am now increasingly sceptical. Outside the Congress echo chamber, there is a sense that the Gandhi family is useless. Rahul Gandhi is an object of ridicule and contempt by people… Across the Indo-Gangetic plain, the Congress has become invisible. It is a lingering death, it is a terminal illness. Rahul Gandhi should retire from politics, get married and start a family. That will be good for him. That will be good for India also.
Normally, this sort of vehement criticism from a long-time well-wisher should’ve had warning bells ringing in the party but as the Sonia interview the very next day showed, it's hard for them to let dynasty go: and so the interview was about what we already know — Indira Gandhi and sacrifice and the rest. What was interesting though was what Sonia did not say — how neither her nor the Congress had any idea on how to counter BJP or how the party did not know what to offer to the people of India.
Also, consider the fact that it is the Aam Aadmi Party that’s leading the charge against Narendra Modi’s demonetisation scheme, and also how Arvind Kejrwial decided to team up with Mamata Banerjee, and not Congress. The Delhi chief minister has made it very difficult for anyone to expect anything nuanced from him, but the Congress' stance has not really made any ground-breaking progress and Rahul Gandhi standing in an ATM queue with a posse of his security detail, was not one of them.
More worrying tidings for the Congress have also begun to emanate from the East in the past month or so. First, it was news of Nitish Kumar opening "backchannel talks with the BJP for alliance in Bihar." Now, it is his open praise for the Prime Minister’s demonetisation missile. The Congress which had bagged 22 seats in the recent Bihar polls piggybacking on the JD(U) and the RJD will suffer a further body blow if Nitish agrees to part ways with Lalu and go with the BJP.
The recent bypolls held in six states and one Union Territory reflected the electoral popularity of BJP and the lack of it in Congress. The grand old party lost ground in all states except Puducherry. Results especially from Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh show the kind of phenomenal inroads that the BJP has made in the North East, all coming at the expense of the Congress.
The September 2016 Pew survey report concludes that "a strong majority (81 percent) of Indians hold a favorable view of Modi, including 57 percent who have a very favorable opinion of him. A similar proportion of the public (80 percent) expresses a positive view of the BJP" while also noting the fact that “a majority of backers of the rival Indian National Congress party (INC) express a positive view of Modi and the BJP.” This writer recently spoke to a Congress Taluk functionary in Uttar Pradesh about Modi, demonetisation and allied topics. His response: "Modiji kisi ka sagah nahi hai ji. Desh ki bhalai ke liye woh kuch bhi karsakta hai ji. (Modi is noone's. For the welfare of the country he will do anything.)"
This then is what the Congress is faced with. Today, it's truly a party that has outlived its utility for the nation and is largely surviving on the crutches of the sprawling ecosystem it has spawned by doling out pelf and patronage over the decades. It simply cannot attract merit and talent because as its record shows, these will be vetoed if they go against the received wisdom of that mysterious entity called the High Command. This seems to be the common strand in the recent slew of books written by diehard former Congress supporters and insiders including Sanjaya Baru, Natwar Singh and Margaret Alva.
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