In the rumble-tumble of election, the role of Congress President Sonia Gandhi has not been recognised. No doubt, the contest was between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi but the real rivalry was between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And here Sonia Gandhi was relevant.
All pollsters predicted victory for the BJP in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. And this has come true. The Congress won 80 seats and BJP 99. There has been no surprise except the margin of victory. What has been noted is the improvement in the Congress tally. The party which has been in the wilderness for the last few years has come to be relevant again. The gap between the two has narrowed. It seems that Rahul Gandhi will give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a meaningful fight. The credit for this should go to Sonia Gandhi, who once again put life into the party.
I vividly remember the scene in the Central Hall of Parliament after she won the general election in 2004. Members unanimously wanted her to head the government. But she was reluctant to do so. Probably, in her mind was the pernicious propaganda that she hailed from Italy. On her part, she was conscious that the tag of being Italian might adversely affect her son, Rahul.
She deliberately put Dr Manmohan Singh in the chair of prime ministership because he had no politics and no ambition. His tenure of prime ministership for 10 years was eventless. Important files of the Government of India would go to her place for processing and then to Manmohan Singh for mere signatures. Her political adviser Ahmad Patel took all the decisions. Sanjaya Baru, Media Advisor confirms this in his book “The Accidental Prime Minister”.
Sonia Gandhi knew the charge which was made against her. But if she had to keep the seat warm for her son, Rahul Gandhi, there was no other way. Manmohan Singh does not, however, accept the allegation. Even when asked to comment on the criticism, he merely said: “Posterity will judge.”
True, today's Congress Party has the stamp of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. But Sonia Gandhi is the one who kept the party united. Otherwise it would have split into many groups. To her credit, she had come to be recognised by all the groups as the leader in the party. She was, in fact, the meeting point for all the segments. There was no challenge to her in the party.
The ease with which she has put her son, Rahul Gandhi in her seat shows that she is in fact the party. Rahul is conscious of dynastic charge. He has said openly that there should be a better way to select a person for Congress presidentship. In any case, the dynastic rule ends with Rahul Gandhi.
The problem with the Congress Party today is that it has not gone beyond the dynastic dependence. And, somehow, the people are not enamoured of the dynasty anymore. Rahul Gandhi doesn't sell although he passionately and honestly pursues the Congress principles laid down by his great grandfather Nehru. Priyanka, Sonia Gandhi's daughter, goes down well with the masses. This is probably because she reminds them of Indira Gandhi, who still enjoys pre-eminence in their thoughts.
All this are true, yet the Congress has lost its relevance and the party has to work hard to make people believe that it can provide an alternative. Prime Minister Modi is still acceptable in spite of steps like the demonetisation of the currency. People believe that it was all for their good even though they have to face inconvenience.
It is a long haul for the Congress to push out the BJP from power. The biggest problem is that secularism is not a concept as attractive as it used to be once. The people themselves have been influenced by Hindutva thoughts. In fact, there is a soft-Hindutva in the country today. How to resell the idea of India, that is democratic and secular polity, is the arduous task which the Congress is facing today.
That may influence the parliamentary election in 2019 and give direction to the country, including the Congress. The party's problem is that it has not won any election since Modi has come into power. In Gujarat BJP has been able to retain power. This should worry the secular, liberal forces. The BJP is entrenching itself and the Congress is losing the importance it once had.
During the election, Rahul Gandhi went all over the country and faced the crowds all by himself. Sonia Gandhi was not there. This means that the people have accepted Rahul Gandhi as a representative of the Congress. He too has gained confidence and addresses the people as if he has arrived. Sonia Gandhi can congratulate herself that when she put him in the gaddi of president, there was general acceptance. True, the badge of dynasty was there but the decision did not look dictatorial. Rahul Gandhi had worked with the party's cadre. He went to many places in the country where he sat on the ground with the ordinary members to discuss the challenges that the party faced.
Rahul may not have faced privations which the party men do, but he has got the feel of the values that the party has preserved for the last 150 years. This will stand him in good stead when he directs the Congress as its president. It is an arduous journey but he will have to cover it if he has to make it to the top.
Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.