Even as Sonia Gandhi prepares to pass the baton to her children in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, it is obvious that she is not only opting for semi-retirement a few years too early but also that she is leaving the Congress in more of a derelict state than ever before in its 131 years.
At 69, Sonia is only four years older than Narendra Modi. In the normal course, she could have carried on for several more years.
But indifferent health has apparently forced her to opt for a change of guard at the party’s helm with Rahul Gandhi being groomed to take over as the party chief, although there is little doubt that she will continue to play a major role in the Congress and in the country’s politics in the foreseeable future.
When the history of these times is written, her retreat from formal leadership will however be seen to have taken place when the party is going downhill. She will not be handing over a healthy organization to her children but an ailing one.
From this standpoint, her stewardship can be said to have marked the twilight period of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. There is little doubt that Sonia Gandhi will be held responsible by chroniclers for this sad state of affairs if only because she has been — and still is — in sole command of the party. As a result, its successes and failures cannot but be attributed to her.
It was in 2004 that the Congress tasted success under her leadership. But hindsight suggests that it was an achievement by default rather than on its own steam.
According to Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP’s defeat was the result of popular anger and disenchantment caused by the Gujarat riots.
As the Hindutva storm-troopers violated the raj dharma of neutrality in Gujarat, the Congress gained by being in the right place at the right time.
With Sonia Gandhi’s popularity ratings second only to Vajpayee’s at the time, it was evident that the electorate voted for her rather than for the Congress.
The success of 2004 was confirmed by an even bigger victory in 2009 when the Congress crossed the 200-seat mark in the Lok Sabha. The party seemed to be going from strength to strength.
But, then, the wheels began to turn and the decline which began from 2011-12 is still continuing. There is little doubt that Sonia Gandhi is responsible for this slide. A major reason is the disconnect between her and the popular preference for economic reforms.
As a recent book on P.V. Narasimha Rao has pointed out, a sizable section of Congressmen were against the then prime minister opening up the economy.
Indeed, Sonia and the anti-reforms Congressmen still live in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately for them, India has moved on — a trend which Narendra Modi detected and capitalized on with his pitch for development. The Congress, therefore, has been left behind.
But economic obtuseness is not the only reason the party has floundered under Sonia Gandhi. An even greater blunder is her unwillingness to build up a second rung of leadership apart from her own children.
Even there, Sonia Gandhi apparently prefers to distinguish between Rahul and Priyanka although the latter is palpably more popular among the party’s rank and file and the people in general.