Sonia Gandhi will be celebrating her 61st birthday this Sunday. Born into a family of modest means in an Italian village Ovassanjo on December 9, 1946, Sonia Antonia Maino has come a long way to become India’s most powerful political leader and be named as the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in the year 2004. She currently ranks 6 in the Forbes list and was also named by the Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2007.
For Sonia, it was not years of public life but her family links and the tradition of dynastic succession in the Congress party that have paved the way for her emergence as a strong leader in the political arena. Even as she remains the undisputed party leader, Sonia is never seen to be a power grabber. Her political strength mainly stems from this perception.
For a person who remained aloof and away from the glare of politics for many years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, the transformation into a formidable and consummate politician is complete. Sonia is known to have detested politics and opposed her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s entry into it.
It was perhaps this contempt for politics that shaped Sonia’s leadership style. Sonia is an unchallenged leader in the Congress party today—even Indira Gandhi had to face a lot of dissidence in the party—due to her qualities of patience and endurance.
In comparison, Rajiv Gandhi was intemperate and insulted Congress’s chief ministers at will and sacked a foreign secretary publicly.
Sonia has allowed most of the party’s chief ministers to last a full term of five years and that includes many chief ministers not known to be her favourites. Tell me which political leader would allow a non-political person such as Manmohan Singh—who is, no doubt, honourable, trustworthy and dependable—to continue as prime minister for five years and back him to the hilt?
It is customary for the Congress leaders to eulogize Sonia whenever the party wins an election and blame the local leaders when it loses them. Has the Congress party truly benefited from Sonia’s stewardship of the party? The answer is an unqualified yes.
Sonia has worked as a unifying force and held the party together. But for Sonia’s entry the Congress would have split into innumerable state-level parties with every political leader of stature splitting the party to create a state-level regional party. She is a leader who is acceptable to all in her party and her authority is unquestioned.
Does she have a mass appeal to draw voters to the party fold? In my assessment, the answer is a categorical no. Her poor public-speaking skills—she continues to read from prepared speeches—seriously limit her potential to be a vote catcher for the party.
The only leader in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who has an undiminished mass appeal till date is former prime minister Indira Gandhi. In some tribal areas, Sonia is very popular as these voters mistakenly believe her to be Indira Gandhi.
Given her distaste for politics, Sonia never openly encouraged sycophancy that is a hallmark of dynasty politics. Remember how H.N. Bahuguna equated Indira with India? Sonia told the recent AICC conference: “There is no need to speak too much about me.” “Do not waste time on speaking about personalities,” she added.
Earlier, Sonia has reprimanded zealous party leaders who mindlessly attempted to show her as an incarnation of goddess Durga.
Political parties have repeatedly raised her foreign origin in elections, but without any success. Her foreign origin was a non-issue with the electorate as she held no high public office. Had she become prime minister, this could have snowballed into a major national issue and the United Progressive Alliance government would have collapsed long ago and helped resurgence of the BJP.
Sonia’s spin doctors have projected her refusal to accept prime ministership as a sacrifice, but doubts have always lingered that she has tried to make a virtue out of necessity. Now, having brought son Rahul Gandhi in the forefront, she has apparently ruled herself out from future prime ministerial sweepstakes.
Sonia has steered the Congress party through a very critical phase. Through her able leadership and tutoring of her son, Sonia has ensured that the Congress will remain in the grip of the dynasty and survives as a principal national level party for another quarter century. One perhaps doesn’t need to worry about the party’s future even beyond that, as Priyanka’s children are fast catching up and that is good enough reason for the dynasty-struck Congress party to marvel at its bright future.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org