Sonia Gandhi’s future political leadership hinges on the Congress party’s performance in the next round of Assembly elections. Sonia Gandhi’s political leadership is not her own making. It has been thrust on her by circumstances not even wildly imagined by her. Yet, politics is politics and here she is, now saddled with such awesome responsibilities. One doesn’t know her fully and the irony is that those who are supposed to be close to her now don’t know a thing about her at all! That is the source for all anxieties and fears arising about the fast changing realities of politics, both inside as well as outside India.

India is critically positioned at present. India’s neighbors are all now troubled states. Pakistan and Bangladesh are declared military dictatorships; events in Nepal and Sri Lanka are also pointers to the troubled future that lay ahead in these two equally critical states. As for India’s foreign policy it is not clear how far we can trust our own policy makers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is after all a lightweight and the position came to him not by his own volition but by some windfall. Sonia Gandhi doesn’t trust any of her present most trustworthy individuals either. Most of the senior leaders around her, men like the External Affairs Minister and Education Minister Arjun Singh and even A.K.Antony are not so pure committed  original Congressmen, they were all at one time or other the  ones who deserted the party and came back later. If this is the case with such seniors, Sheila Dikshit and Natwar Singh and others, even the younger ones like Ambika Soni, why even the Finance Minister Mr.P.Chidambaram deserted the party and deserted Sonia Gandhi when she needed them most and now they are back in the limelight for the simple reason they find the present get-together a paying proposition! Yes, that is what politics is is all about. Nothing wrong, we can say and rest at that.

But unfortunately, politics is both serious and all-embracing and one step in the wrong direction has had cascading effects, one compromise with basic  principles leads to another compromise and in this way, we see one the countries that were founded on sound principles and even written Constitutions and democracies went off the rails and the countries we are talking about now, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Nepal face the  most serious internal crises and they even pose threats to the neighbors  and see the issues in Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka Tamils’ issue, in Pakistan arises all terrorism that is exported, even China now admits that Pakistan-trained  terrorists pose threats in its North Western provinces. Bangladesh has become a big headache, it now debars its own leaders, Khalida and Zia, are now debarred entry into the country or they face exile as a deal! What is a deal in politics? It is either to kill democracy or strengthen military dictatorships. Bangladesh-based terrorist camps pose threat to India’s North East.

So, the point is that Indian political scenario is not so simple enough to run a bureaucratic style government. There are many dangers to Indian polity, from the terrorists and militants from across India’s borders or Indian polity has to face the impact of developments in our neighborhood and the future looks a bit grim, given the changing international politics and international terrorism.

So, the question is: is Sonia Gandhi capable of handling such large-scale political challenges that face India? Is the Prime Minister’s position credible enough to give the Indian people the required mental capabilities to stand up and defend democracy when more critical challenges are mounted by either internal crises or from external threats?

There could be people who for various reasons, often for selfish and narrow motives, would say Sonia Gandhi is capable of handling any such challenges to the Indian polity. But there are genuine worries. Worries that given her way she handles the Congress party affairs or the affairs of the state that the polity seems to rest on thin foundations, with not much mass awareness and mass participation in the process of the functioning of the democratic institutions. Be it the Executive (the Cabinet and the higher bureaucracy), or the Parliament and the Judiciary and the Media.

Why we have to worry about the current political affairs?

There is a fresh case in the court, before the Supreme Court raising the issues concerning Sonia Gandhi’s citizenship and her right to hold high Constitutional offices. This might raise doubts in the minds of many, including in the minds of the Congress politicians about Sonia Gandhi’s own legitimacy to hold such offices. She is the party President but she was never elected even by a show of some democratic process. The Congress party today is so unrepresentative of the Indian public opinion; the party is not having any internal accountability, no internal democracy, and no elected element in the constitution of the party and its various decision-making processes. After all, the party is not any ordinary one. It has a long history and it has a long process of evolving a political ideology at different times, before and after Independence.

As quoted by Yusuf Ahmad Ansari,a Congress worker and author of a book on Sonia Gandhi and one who is well-read and makes insightful observations, Ansari has quoted the widely read book by the former  FT Correspondent in Delhi, Ed Luce’s, Inspite of the Gods,” The BJP sometimes dilutes its message for tactical reasons. But everybody knows what it really believes. It is often a struggle, on the other hand, to work out what the Congress believes in nowadays. This is both the weakness and strength. It is a weakness because there is no clearly defined cause behind to marshal party workers.”(Edward Luce, Inspite of the Gods, The Strange Rise of Modern India, 2006).In fact, everyday, the confusion about what the Congress stands for is revealed. The latest to add to the confusion is none other than the widely perceived political heir, Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi has made certain remarks in the course of his UP election tour about Muslim appeasement as well as the role of the Gandhi family in partitioning Pakistan as well as the demolition of the Babri masjid during Narasimha Rao’s regime.

This is seen as wooing both the Muslims as well as Hindus, in fact to take the initiative from BJP which only used to raise the bogey of threat to Hindutva as well as others for appeasing the Muslims, all for vote bank politics. This vote bank politics has proved counter-productive for the Congress party which at one time stood for a strong secular and united India where the Hindus and Muslims lived on equal terms. Fortunately, these two communities live so united even now, thanks to the wisdom of the Indian ethos, rather than the wisdom of the politicians who betray the country’s great ethos for the partisan dividends.

Now, the UP Assembly elections might prove to be a watershed as far as the Congress fortunes are concerned. As Mulayam Singh Yadav, the UP Samajwadi party leader and current CM has observed the UP elections would put a final seal to the future of the Congress party in the largest Indian state, where the leading contenders are SP and the BSP and in the third place, the BJP. It is the Brahmin vote that would decide the outcome of the election results. The Brahmins constitute13 per cent of the UP population and they could decide the fate of some 80 to 90 seats in 403 member assembly. The Brahmins once were the backbone of the Congress, afterwards, when leaders of such stature like N.D.Tiwari were marginalized, the Brahmin vote went with the BJP,Vajpayee himself being a Brahmin also helped.Now,Mayawati is a clever politician, she has brought in a large number of Brahmin candidates and also Muslims. So, she stands a chance this time again.

The current election trends show an edge for the BSP followed by the BJP. If the final vote count also follows the current trend then, it is the very logic of the numbers that would dictate the next government’s composition. That is the BSP in alliance with the BJP or vice versa, rather than the Congress having any role in such a scenario. The SP is not friendly anymore with the Congress or with the BJP and so the SP’s chances to sway the alliance in its favor look extremely unlikely. Sometimes, nay, many times in the coalition politics, it is not the individual leaders who dictate alliances; it is the numbers that dictate the alliances. So, Mayawati, rather than Madam Sonia Gandhi is likely to call the shots.

Unfortunately, in UP, it is not the incumbent government that is a model of any ideologically clear future politics either. Nor is it a government known for its law and order or initiating development in a perceptible manner. Given the sort of leaders who have come closer to Mulayam Singh who incidentally is a late comer to politics in 1967 and he had already faced desertions by some veteran Socialists, the sort of current favorites, Amar Singh and film actor Amitabh Bachchan are by no means the worthy heirs to inherit the halo of Rammanohar Lohia or a JP legacy. So too the Congress. UP had always been the critical central political fulcrum of the Indian National Congress. But progressively and also very foolishly often, the AICC leadership bypassed the veterans of the UP politics, the list is long and the leaders were all distinguished, the UP veterans were bypassed by Delhi when Narasimha Rao and later Sonia Gandhi tried to assert their will in favor of weakening the state Congress, PCC leadership. As of now, the PCC is nowhere nor is the Congress anywhere in the current reckoning in the state.

The point is that the Congress has progressively surrendered its identity in favor of the regional allies. In TN this happened, in UP this has happened and next in line, Maharashtra, the second largest state which sends 48 Lok Sabha MPs,it is pathetically dependent upon the ambitious rival leader Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress party. It is widely perceived at many levels, that given Pawar’s clout, his capacity to win and retain friends in other parties and his financial resources, it is Pawar who might play a crucial role in the formation of the next government in Delhi. Till the next Lok Sabha elections, that is till 2009, Congress has to face state-level elections 11 states and there is a deep worry in the Congress about its capacity to win over the people.Rahul Gandhi’s much-hyped UP campaign didn’t evoked the required level of response. It is described at best as Luke warm. So, where does the young Gandhi go from here? This is the most sensitive question that haunts the Congress.

As widely expected the Congress might not do well again in Goa and later in the year in Gujarat nor are the hopes for the elections in the Himachal Pradesh looks bright. All these thoughts and the political trends raise questions that might be about the very polity’s capacity to withstand the many pressures and challenges, internally as well from external forces.

The very fact that Sonia Gandhi is still a reluctant leader considering her own inherent handicaps and also the very structure of the Congress party as it has evolved under her. She can’t depend upon anyone whose advice has the inner altruism and selflessly given. For this she has to blame herself. In politics, there is a limit to selflessness. If everyone gets easy access to high positions without much effort and only through abject sycophancy, then who is to blame? The leader only has to accept the blame herself. This is the real dilemma in which Sonia Gandhi finds herself today.

In a recent newspaper column, Mr. B.G.Deshmukh, a former Cabinet Secretary and a former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has pleaded for the Sharad Pawar party to remain outside the mainstream Congress party. His argument: Maharashtra was always neglected and once merged with the parent party Pawar would lose his bargaining power. In between he has raised the old shabby treatment meted out to the stalwart, the late Y.B.Chavan.As an insider Mr.Deshmukh might have watched how the Delhi political durbar operates. He says, it has always been the Congress party tradition (or practice) since the days of Indira Gandhi to bypass the legitimate leaders of proven capabilities to go for some lightweights. He cited how C.D. Deshmukh resigned, how “Y.B.Chavan was literally made to wait as a supplicant outside the Congress gates from 1980 till he died, thoroughly humiliated”. He also cites Pawar’s own experience, how he was readmitted and made chief minister in 1988 and yet he was always kept under watch. This, Narasimha Rao also did. Every time Pawar made a bid for power, he was sidelined. Even when he could have become the Prime Minister in 2004, he was sidelined in favor of the dark horse, Manmohan Singh. So, Pawar’s recent decision to fight the Mumbai civic elections independently paid him rich dividends. Now, in the forthcoming Goa elections too the Congress can’t go alone, it needs Pawar’s party to help it out.

The point is that the Congress had purposely killed any inner party democracy and unwilling to learn from the past mistakes and the party is devoid of real leaders who are willing to work hard and deliver results. This will come only when there is genuine space for fresh talents to come into the party. Promoting Rahul Gandhi may be okay, given the present political changes in the country at large; every other party promotes dynasty politics. But then the Congress party is the oldest and had had a glorious past. There has to be a gradual democratic process in the promotion of talents too.

At least it must go beyond very narrow thoughts and considerations of family, caste and region and the many vested interests that had gathered around the party. Unless the party emerges as one of the most liberal and open-minded party of wider perspectives and diverse talents, then the party would become one more of the small parties. In that scenario, it is rather grim to visualize the chances for the polity to emerge as a strong and well-run democratic organization, given to some internal honest dissent and ideological debate. There must be room for long time loyalists; there must be progressive opportunities for those who have stood by the party without expecting any immediate rewards. Civil society must trust the party’s wider economic and social goals and commitments. This is not happening at present and this must cause so much soul searching in the party and in sections of society that had grown around the nationalist history of the country.

In all mature democracies, there is always a tradition of promoting and recognizing genuine talents in politics and public life. There is always room for anyone to come out with some new and innovative ideological constructions. The party or parties do undergo radical changes and leaders emerge and all this is happening in an open environment. So much is happening in India today, so many new talents in such diverse fields like grassroots work to urban governance and the public-private participation in a wide variety of fields. Fighting corruption, getting and asserting the right to information and women empowerment etc are all areas where we see so much public participation. Why then only in party politics of a party like the Indian National Congress there is such paucity of talent, such paucity of interest among the leaders? Party workers are routinely ignored and there is so much pent-up frustration down unto the grassroots level. All this must cause some introspection.

In India, in the Congress party, there is now a lot of rut, lot of fortune seekers in all critical positions. Even party spokespersons lack any conviction when they defend the indefensible! Too many jobless lawyers crowd the party office. Too little old style party work is getting done.

Nobody cares for anybody. Everyone seeks his or her own individual fortunes. How can a party contribute to the evolution of a coherent and widely shared consensus on any topic? Even the Prime Minister or his senior colleagues are wanted in election campaigning in UP! Such is their image among the poor and the rural voters who in UP still seem to adhere to some old world Nehruvian politics of idealism and go by some political loyalties.

There is the internal decay the Congress party faces today. Its continued neglect might cause irreparable damage to the polity in a more fundamental way than what is envisaged today by those in cost seats of power and privileges. It is for the intellectuals and loyal party workers, the grassroots workers and the ordinary men and women of this country to think and worry about their country’s future destiny. There is so much at stake now.

Our judiciary and the media seem to be the only hope. Even our great Parliament as an institution is nowadays in the news for the wrong reasons. Our honourable members of parliament seem to resist all attempts to reform the conduct of their behavior, be it through legislation or through judicial orders. Here is so much wrong doing, so much corruption, so much criminal elements among their ranks. In the current, ongoing UP elections we find that all parties have fielded candidates with criminal records.36% of the BSP candidates, the SP, BJP and the Congress with 31%, 20%, 25% respectively! It is a great pity. As for the political values, it looks the less said the better.

We seem to be a nation that doesn’t care for any sense of legitimacy and a sense of shame, we accept office and profit at the drop of a hat! An editorial in a leading daily calls it a “Rogues gallery”. What a great shame!

Politics must basically have some legitimacy. Moral issues count a great deal in politics and individuals with high moral caliber do matter. There has to be a widely debated area of concern when it comes to what holds a country together. We have again just got to look at our neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh to draw some lessons, if at all. The core politics in any country or society must be well-built by some solid moral foundations. The present politics of coalition for the sake of pursuing narrow selfish politics shouldn’t leads into some blind alley. India should not be let to disintegrate by any such narrowness of minds of the present wielders of power. There are deep worries for such developments. So some people at least must sound such alarms. It is for the wielders of power who have to ask themselves the question:” Have we earned this office by any sense of striving, by any moral scruples?” If not, they must make way for others. Rather graciously. That is a great national service! It is time for doing some collective inner search. Such a great introspection.

We must all do this in the interest of cleansing the polity and also strengthening the moral foundations of a society and saving our democratic values. This also involves standing up and fighting for upholding political values. Activism in politics and public life is one of the rare moral virtues. We have to just form coalitions of alliances with like-minded civil society groups, NGOs and even some political parties which believe in clean politics. Luckily, there are vibrant forces in the Indian society and polity and every citizen must seek alliances with such positive forces.

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