Can Sonia Gandhi rejuvenate the Indian National Congress?
Following what was an electoral debacle for the Indian National Congress (INC) and the subsequent resignation of party president Rahul Gandhi, senior leaders of the party appointed Sonia Gandhi as the provisional chief of the oldest mainstream political establishment in India.
The 72-year-old widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is back at the helm. Supporters suggest that Mrs Gandhi’s experience and distinguished political aptitude makes her the perfect candidate to helm the responsibility of a party in crisis.
Yet, detractors suggest that the Congress’ move towards appointing her as interim president showcases how the party is unable to move beyond the Gandhi family as a source of leadership. The question remains: Will Sonia Gandhi once again prove to be Congress’ saviour, or does this represent political bankruptcy with respect to India’s largest opposition force?
This is not the first time that Mrs Gandhi has heeded the clarion call to save Congress from disaster. In 2017, Mrs Gandhi resigned, citing ill health -- due to her ailing health and increasing age, she has remained relatively inactive in the past two years. However, known for her ability to build coalitions, Mrs Gandhi returned to active politics during the Karnataka state elections in 2018.
As journalists suggested that the move was a masterclass from the veteran, she orchestrated a post polls alliance with the Janata Dal (secular) and ensured that at the very least, Congress remained a vocal opposition to the mounting centralization of Indian politics by the incumbent BJP Government in Delhi.
If not anything, her role during this election showcased her continuing importance to Indian politics and her ability to influence results. The circumstances around Mrs Gandhi’s accession to the interim presidency can be analyzed from two varying directions.
The BJP’s increased stranglehold on power and the resignation of several leaders from crucial posts following Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step down in June has rocked the party -- at such a venture, even leaders who have called for internal elections, most prominently leaders such as MP Shashi Tharoor, have suggested that Mrs Gandhi remains the most trusted and realistic choice to tackle the problems the party is facing.
The Congress has been unable to mount any form of coordinated and robust response to the decision of the Modi Government to revoke Article 370. It has been suggested that given these concerns, Congress needs stability more than anything and Sonia Gandhi is a tried and tested figure who can provide exactly that.
From the opposing angle, the decision to appoint the matriarch of the Gandhi family to replace the very person who replaced her in 2017 indicates that Congress is unable to look beyond the Gandhis for leadership.
While one can argue that this family is integrated in the very ethos of the party which led India to independence, there are those who will suggest that today’s Congress is a far cry from the organization helmed by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.
Historians often argue that Congress, up until 1969, was one which resonated with the values of democracy, nation building, and collective decision-making, which together imbued the very spirit of Indian nationalism.
Nevertheless, Indira Gandhi and her successors often prioritized individualized charisma as being the source of political support, rather than decentralizing or democratizing the party structure over their tenures. And sadly, Sonia Gandhi falls in the latter category.
During 2004 to 2014, whilst Dr Manmohan Singh was prime minister, as chair of the National Advisory Committee, Mrs Gandhi had unchallenged authority -- in essence, Congress is back to square one. Those who expected a younger generation of leaders such as the charming Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia to take over more prominent leadership roles in the party, will have to wait.
There is little doubt about Sonia Gandhi’s credentials as a political leader -- she wields more authority, command, respect and to a large extent, acceptability than her son or any other Congress leader.
To her credit, in the past, she successfully rejuvenated her party, charmed Indian voters, and formed two successive governments over the course of the past two decades. She is well-known for being one of India’s finest coalition builders.
In reality, Sonia Gandhi has not had it easy -- she has sturdily opposed right-wing forces who continue questioning her very legitimacy in Indian politics due to her Italian background, and on more than one occasion, she has indeed come on top.
However, it is no secret that today’s India is very different from what it was a decade ago. In his resignation letter, Rahul Gandhi voiced his opinion that a member outside the Gandhi family should take over the role. With such not happening, Sonia Gandhi needs to address what her personal plans are for the near future.
And most importantly, if this is indeed a short-term role for her, she must use the coming months to not only revive the Congress internally, but ensure that the party takes the mantle of speaking and acting vociferously on behalf of the marginalized communities being targeted by the Modi government.
History suggests that Sonia Gandhi is not only ready for this challenge, but she has a track record of succeeding when the back is against the wall -- yet it is no secret that she is not only ailing, but if reports across mainstream media are to be trusted, she is unwilling to take the mantle of her party any longer than necessary.
Therefore, only time will tell if her appointment as the interim leader of Congress will ensure the much sought-after internal stability and create the foundation for the youth of the party to take over, or whether such is simply the reality of the party being unable to look past the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to lead their political struggle.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of International Relations and Economics from The University of Toronto.