Kharge is helming Congress, but Sonia remains indispensable to party
Sonia and Kharge both have the right chemistry with peers in most parties; whether together or alone, they can look for better coordination among opposition parties both inside and outside Parliament
The recent election of Mallikarjun Kharge as president of the Indian National Congress has thrown up the question about the role that the previous party chief, Sonia Gandhi, is going to play in the party and its affairs in the near future. She has bowed out because of her failing health and long tenure in the post.
Sonia has been the longest serving chief of the grand old party. Thus, her aura may well linger and take quite some time to lift. But the suspicion or fear about her Nehru-Gandhi family holding and exercising “remote-control” over Kharge still lingers. It is partly so because of the critics of Congress in the rival parties backed by a fawning media though there are not many sceptics having such a view, or reservations, within the Congress itself.
The Congressmen are optimistic about Kharge’s effective steering of the party in the days to come rather than his getting caught in the crosshairs due to the party’s old ways. This also applies to the party’s top and thus far dominant family as well, though it had a final say in the party for long with only brief interludes.
Why things may change
But now it may change. The reasons being offered for this include Kharge’s long experience in politics, his ability to put forth his point of view and his intimate relations with party hands and functionaries, right from the family at the top, since Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s days to today’s ground level party workers.
While accepting the certificate of his election to the post of Congress president on Wednesday at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi, Kharge used the term “Congress-family” to acknowledge the role being played by Rahul Gandhi for the party through his Bharat Jodo Yatra and the support it needs from every level of the party.
“Today I want to call upon my Congress family to come together to carry the message of Bharat Jodo Yatra to every nook and corner of the country — the message of economic equality, safeguarding constitutional values, communal harmony, more employment opportunities to the youth of India,” he said.
Kharge was also unsparing on Wednesday in his criticism of the present BJP-led Union government though without taking any individual’s name. This brings him on to the same page as Rahul Gandhi. It is mainly so since Rahul has for long been scathing in his attack against the government and Modi despite reservations about this among certain party higher ups.
All praise for Sonia
The new Congress chief credited Sonia, under whose leadership a roadmap to rev up Congress once again was given shape at the party’s Udaipur conclave in summer. In his acceptance speech, Kharge remarked, “Soniaji has always followed the path of truth. By shunning power and position in these times when politics is invariably turned into a tool to capture power she has set an example whose parallel is hard to be found.”
These remarks were made by the 80-year-old new Congress chief. Besides, a resolution was passed while he was taking over the reins of the party, by the gathering of party stalwarts assembled at the AICC office for the occasion. It unreservedly acknowledged Sonia’s services to the party and the country. Both are indicative of the possibility that Sonia can well prove in the times to come to be an ideological spearhead for the grand old party.
Most Congress persons already see her in the role of a mentor or a patron of sorts for themselves and often lament that she is not accessible because of her health, other pressing reasons, or paucity of time.
Shashi Tharoor, who fought against Kharge in the October 17 polls for Congress president, met her to seek her “blessings” before throwing his hat in the contest for the key party post. The Thiruvananthapuram MP also attended the Wednesday ceremony held to mark Karghe’s formal takeover.
The resolution read by party leader Ajay Maken to acknowledge the role played for 25-years by Sonia for Congress went on to seek her “unstinted love, support and guidance” for the party in the future, too. The two-page resolution read in Hindi and passed unanimously noted, “Sonia has demonstrated extraordinary wisdom, great flexibility, sense of purpose and resilience to bring different and diverse parties onto a single platform, resolved vexed political issues with rare foresight and conducted herself in public life with amazing grace, dignity and devotion.”
A master of alliances
Yet, issues confronting the Congress today are no less daunting than what it faced when Sonia became its president. She turned out to be one of the main architects of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that could once beat and upstage the rival National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and sustain through a second electoral showdown after five years.
A year before the 2004 polls, she had led her party to a brainstorming session at Shimla. A decision to go for a pre-poll coalition of the like- minded parties was taken there to challenge the NDA. This was in complete departure from what had happened during a similar party conclave held in September 1998 at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh.
That time, the Congress had decided against forging any alliance with other parties to blunt the repeated onslaughts made by the BJP to push or keep the Congress to the Opposition benches, after the party lost power in the polls held in 1996 while fighting under the leadership of the late Narasimha Rao.
Two years later, Sonia apparently took a cue from the Congress’ Narora session held way back in November 1974 in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district. In that session, Indira Gandhi tried to refurbish her pro-poor or a messianic image. She tried to convince her party colleagues to reorient the Congress as per the needs of millions of impoverished Indians who needed greater attention from the party than the rich and the privileged. This was meant to further strengthen the late leader’s already strong position in keeping with her idea of becoming invincible.
But it was not to be. Indira had to resort to and impose Emergency within months of the Narora Congress session. Similarly, Pachmarhi too could not cut ice and Congress lost polls to the BJP-led NDA in 1999.
Rise of Modi
Sonia could also not make a difference in most Assembly polls held after 1999. In Gujarat, the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi took on frontally against Sonia spearheading the Congress campaign in 2002 polls. Modi won the polls to change electoral politics in profound ways.
Humbled by such reverses, Sonia revamped the Congress plans at Shimla in 2003 and made a comeback the very next year. Yet, she declined to accept the post of Prime Minister to make way for Manmohan Singh.
This was like what has now happened at the party level, as she oversaw Kharge taking command of the Congress despite the party having an election. Her admirers in the party point out her art of stepping back to let the party move ahead, saying that Sonia has always been conscious of her limitations and yet she knows how to keep her options open.
So, if Sonia was chairperson of UPA in Manmohan Singh’s time as PM, she now continues to be the chairperson of Congress Parliamentary Party, they point out, even as Kharge has become Congress chief. This is how she keeps a tab over things, say Congress insiders.
The resolution passed on Wednesday to laud her services did recall her role in bringing together “different or diverse” political entities in the past on one platform. This leaves hope of a future role in alliance or coalition making for Sonia.
Maker of alliances
Significantly, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, along with Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, called on Sonia on September 25 at her 10, Janpath residence in New Delhi. Following the meeting, Lalu told the waiting media-persons: “We have to bring all opposition parties together to defeat the BJP. The Congress is in the process of electing its new president and Sonia Gandhi told us we will meet again after the election.”
So the point is that other parties’ leaders look to Sonia for a possible electoral understanding with Congress. Nitish and Lalu’s parties are already in alliance with the Congress in Bihar. In neighbouring Jharkhand, the Congress again is part of the coalition government led by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and so is the case in Tamil Nadu, with the DMK. Until recently, the Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray was in power in Maharashtra and this could be possible with the support of Congress and the NCP.
The point is that what was decided at Shimla nearly two decades ago has often, if not consistently, been followed both at the central and state levels by the Congress. The reason for this is simple — Sonia knows that politics is the art of the possible.
But so does Kharge. He has been part of coalition-making exercises in the past and once he was preferred by NCP leader Sharad Pawar for talks in this regard over another Congress functionary who held the charge of Maharashtra at that point of time.
Thus, just like Sonia, Kharge has managed to get the chemistry right with peers in most allying parties. Whether together or alone, both can look for better coordination among Opposition parties both inside Parliament and outside through the days to come.
None has been more aware of such propensities of Sonia and Kharge than the current Union government. A few days before the changeover at the AICC office, a licence meant to enable two Gandhi family-run cultural and charitable trusts to receive foreign funds as donations was revoked by the Union Home Ministry. So, when Kharge spoke on Wednesday, he referred to the misuse of government arms to browbeat opponents.
Sonia, Rahul and Kharge have already been questioned by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case. And the latest action against Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust by the Home Ministry is likely to keep the political pot boiling for quite some time.
It is more so since Kharge said: “In the new India, the government is sleeping over rampant hunger, pollution, escalating cost of education and fast depreciating rupee, but ED, Income Tax and CBI are working 24 hours a day…for such a new India they want Congress Mukta Bharat because it cannot happen till Congress is there. We will not let this happen. We will keep on fighting.”
Sonia, in her last speech as party chief, called the “grave threat to democratic values” as the biggest challenge before the party and called upon party men to close ranks to save these ideals and the country.
So, this is how under a new leadership Congress appears to be finally waking up amid shadows looming from all around.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR. He tweets at @abidshahjourno.)