Anand K Sahay

Before last year’s election, the commonest refrain among the Indian middle classes was that Sonia Gandhi was a “videshi” pretender to the political throne; and to those who did not subscribe to this BJP-inspired thesis she was a nincompoop who had no comprehension of the Indian reality. The election result shook many out of their self-induced stupor as the Congress rode back to power at the head of a coalition, an animal to which this party was thought to be an alien since the Congress was used only to untrammelled authority with which it loved crushing all those who came in its way. If the poll result was not a bitter enough dose for Congress bashers, Sonia declining the office of prime minister was a thunderbolt. Her stock in the country soared on account of the “sacrifice” she had made and the sycophantic Congressmen made a big song and dance about it.

The Congress leader’s choice of PM, Manmohan Singh, became nearly just as difficult to criticise, given his huge standing in the country on account of his integrity and impeccable credentials as a scholar and economic administrator. Over the next few mo-nths, however, the BJP sought to portray the PM as a sham leader who enjoyed no real po-wer. The strings were pulled, it was said, by Sonia. But this refrain never did catch on. Is all this now set to change? The aftermath of the Congress’ discomfiture in Goa where Central rule had to be invoked following the failure of the party’s manipulation to grab power after ousting the BJP from office, its acute embarrassment in Jharkhand in the wake of the Congress-led UPA failing to prove majority numbers in the assembly and the subsequent installation of a BJP-led government in the state, and the imposition of Central rule in Bihar where the UPA failed — on account of intra-partner wrangling — to drum up the numbers, have together brought down the Congress a peg or two.

The issue now being raised in the media, and particularly by the BJP, is that Sonia’s and Manmohan’s honeymoon period is over. More, the suggestion is that they are individuals with feet of clay. At last their intrinsic vulnerability has been exposed, runs the argument. L K Advani, the BJP leader, has been emboldened by the opportunity provided by the Congress’ current discomfiture to once again bring up the issue of Sonia’s foreign origin. It is a moot question if Sonia was associated with detailed decision-making in her party’s botched attempts to gain power in Goa and Jharkhand. Nevertheless, being the party’s leader, she cannot avoid taking the responsibility for the unavailing exercise mounted in these states.

Politics, however, is to a great extent a game of perceptions. And the Congress has been quick to re-enact Gandhiji’s famous Dandi march. While some appeared cynical about the Congress decision to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the famous march as a gimmick, the public response to it has been quite overwhelming. Gandhian values, above all concern for the poor, against untouchability, and for communal harmony have been recalled with gusto. On these counts, the Congress expects to best the BJP.

At the end of the day, the point, however, is that the UPA-led government is in no trouble at all. As for Sonia and Manomohan being actors on the political stage, they can hardly expect to be deified. Even Gandhi had detractors in his day. And this is just as well for democracy.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi