Sonia grows, party shrinks
The paradox in Sonia Gandhi's leadership is that while she has been growing stronger by the day, the party is getting weaker. The Congress, which was in power in 14 States when she took over, now rules only four States
Congress president Sonia Gandhi was named the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2004; she currently ranks sixth on the list. She was also among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world last year. All this she has achieved within a decade. She joined politics to rescue the Congress when the party was disintegrating under Sitaram Kesri's leadership in 1998.
How has the Sonia Gandhi factor worked this past decade? It hasn't been a cakewalk for the Congress president. She has had her ups and downs like any other political leader. After she took over the party on March 14, 1998, Ms Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha the next year and became the first woman Leader of Opposition. Before the surprise 2004 general election win, Ms Gandhi's future in Indian politics had looked somewhat uncertain, thanks to the party's pathetic performance in the 1999 Lok Sabha election, coupled with State Assembly elections in 2003.
When the tables turned in 2004, many senior political leaders from other parties, including Mr Jyoti Basu, Mr M Karunanidhi and Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, endorsed Ms Gandhi's leadership. Beating the NDA at its own game, she cobbled formidable alliances in States that worked magic for the Congress in the 2004 general election to bag 145 seats. On May 16, 2004, she became the leader a 15-party UPA coalition.
Ms Gandhi came close to becoming the Prime Minister not once but twice -- first in 1999 and again in 2004. She made a bid in 1999 after the 13-month-old Vajpayee Government was defeated by a single vote. The second time was in 2004 when the UPA Government was formed. However, both times she failed to become Prime Minister. However, her decision to install Mr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister has worked well so far, but the party as well as the UPA allies know that the real power flows from 10, Janpath.
What has made Ms Gandhi successfully transform from a mere housewife to a national leader? She has several factors going in her favour. First, bogged by factionalism, she is the only unifying force in the party, thanks to the 'charisma' of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Second, she was lucky to inherit the Congress, which was involved in the freedom movement and had a presence in many parts of the country. Third, she did not face the kind of revolt that Mrs Indira Gandhi had to confront from the 'Syndicate' of Congress veterans, or what Rajiv Gandhi faced when Mr VP Singh challenged his authority.
Except for the rebellion by Mr Sharad Pawar and Mr PA Sangma in 1998 on the foreign origin issue, there has been no challenge to Ms Gandhi's leadership so far. When Jitendra Prasada contested against her for the Congress presidency, he lost miserably. Even the efforts to embarrass her failed many times -- be it her foreign origin or office of profit. She played her masterstroke when she resigned from the Lok Sabha in March 2006 to win for a second time on the office of profit controversy.
But the paradox in Ms Gandhi's leadership is that while she has been growing stronger, the party is getting weaker. The Congress, which was ruling in 14 States when she took over the party, is now in power in just four States. The overall confusion is telling on the organisation. After the recent debacle in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, the murmurs from Congressmen have become louder. The charges of favouritism where some people hold more than one position while others are ignored, and the lack of nurturing of grassroots leaders by the leadership, are among the most common complaints.
With the onset of coalition era at the Centre as well as in States, the share of the pie for one party has shrunk. The Congress faces an additional problem - Ms Gandhi has been grooming her son, Mr Rahul Gandhi, to takeover the party. The result is that the second and third-level Congressmen don't see future for themselves in the party.
There are three main challenges for the Congress president. The first is to keep the coalition intact and remain in power. The future of the UPA remains uncertain. The Left parties have started talking about a 'Third Front', while the DMK is upset over the issue of Ram Setu. The RJD and the NCP, too, are keeping their option open.
The second challenge for Ms Gandhi is to rejuvenate the Congress. This is imperative for without a strong party there is no power. With the growth of regional parties, this will require a lot of hard work. The party has lost the northern belt, while regional parties have taken firm roots in the south.
The third challenge is to keep power within the Nehru-Gandhi family. This will be possible only if she focuses on the first two. Moreover, Mr Rahul Gandhi should be seen to be regenerating the Congress. However, things don't look too bright at the moment.
The problem with the Congress is that the link between the top level and the grassroots has withered away. Ms Gandhi, too, needs to take a few tough decisions -- showing doors to some of the coterie members and encouraging mass leaders.