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How did Sonia Gandhi cut her losses?

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: March 23, 2006 20:36 IST
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The drama before and after Congress president Sonia Gandhi's resignation from the Lok Sabha is a lesson in political one-upmanship, with both the Bharatiya Janata Party, which drew first blood with its campaign against Gandhi, and the latter battling each other for political supremacy.

The first round went to the BJP, for smartly turning the fallout from Jaya Bachchan's disqualification from the Rajya Sabha -- which was orchestrated by the Congress party -- against its president Sonia Gandhi.

The BJP sprang into action as soon as news broke out that the government was planning an ordinance between two sessions of Parliament, to help more than 40 MPs -- including Mrs Gandhi and Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee -- who come under the shadow of holding an office of profit while a member of Parliament.

The BJP's shrill propaganda reached a climax when former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said if the government came out with such an ordinance, then 'the government will go.'

Without losing a moment, Leader of Opposition L K Advani and other BJP leaders revived fears of the June 1975 Allahabad high court judgment that was the catalyst that led to the imposition of Emergency.

The BJP alleged that the government was planning an ordinance to change the law of disqualification, 1959, concerning parliamentarians in order to save Gandhi.

Congress spokesman Rajiv Shukla on Wednesday denied the charge but no one believed him, so strong was the belief that the government was up to something.

Naturally, on the morning of March 23, the United Progressive Alliance government looked to be in a total mess. It faced a political fiasco after confidently believing hither-to that the National Advisory Council chairmanship held by Gandhi was not an office of profit.

Sonia Gandhi, who had told the nation convincingly on May 18, 2004, that her "inner voice" compels her to forsake the prime ministership, now faced a test where the depth of her inner voice was being doubted.

The stupid thing about the whole episode is that the entire mess was of Congressmen's own making. And the only way out of the mess was for Gandhi to resign.

The villiain of the piece once again was Law Minister H R Bhardwaj, who mishandled the internal discussion among members of Parliament over some kind of changes in the Members of Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act of 1959.

Gandhi's resignation is also the fallout of a no-holds-barred war between the Congress and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

A Congressman from UP who lost an election complained to the Election Commission that Rajya Sabha member Jaya Bachchan, as chairperson of the UP Film Development Council, was holding an office of profit. When the whole issue came out on the national platform, the Congress pushed it to its logical conclusion without thinking of the consequences.

Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav tried his best to save Bachchan by amending the state law through an ordinance to take the UP Film Development Council chairmanship out of its purview. But the Congress stalled all his moves. It was only yesterday, after the BJP mounted its successful propaganda to nail Sonia Gandhi, did UP Governor T V Rajeshwar Rao -- a central government appointee -- okay the ordinance.

Yadav's attempt was to help Bachchan contest the Rajya Sabha election, whose nominations closed last week, but the Congress didn't play ball only because the Gandhis and Bachchans have fallen out and the latter are now on the side of the Congress's arch-rivals. Without regaining control of UP and Bihar the Congress cannot dream big in Indian politics and Mrs Gandhi, who wants her son Rahul Gandhi to take on bigger challenges in national politics, wants political backing from Uttar Pradesh for him.

That is the backdrop against which today's events were played out.

The political developments were so quicksilver that after facing criticism for taking a short cut with the ordinance, Mrs Gandhi is now being praised for taking the high moral ground.

Some would term her decision to quit as as a panic reaction but Mrs Gandhi is not one to mess around with the family's credibility to which she herself has hugely contributed since May 2004. Since the last two years she believes that she is above politics and that she has a special role to play in India's public life. By default the BJP gave her a chance to prove this point once again.

While Amitabh Bachchan will have the last laugh, the BJP will regret losing out in the crucial round.

According to sources in the Congress, Gandhi faced three adverse factors this morning:

1) After Vajpayee's statement she knew she would not be spared if her chairmanship of the NAC eventually came under the ambit of office of profit. Her political managers also noted Chief Election Commissioner B B Tandon's statement in Assam that the 'law is equal for everybody'. She knew she was heading for a serious political crisis.
2) The media was largely buying the BJP line that the Congress party was planning an ordinance to save her Lok Sabha membership. And the Left parties, which shared the broader Congress view on the matter because their eight MPs were also under the scanner, took a different public posture in order to keep their moral edge because they understood that the Congress was in a tight spot and they preferred safe passage to remain out of public ire. It's another matter that the Left now believes Gandhi's decision will impact the Congress favourably in elections to Assam, Kerala and West Bengal assemblies.
3) It became clear to Gandhi that more than the actual issue, her own public image was at stake. She would have lost her edge she gained on May 18, 2004, if she didn't decide fast. Time lost would not give her the same moral aura. Think about it: except losing her Lok Sabha seat, she has not actually lost anything. Her 'damage control' is successful because by cutting her losses, she has turned the tables on the BJP.

But the fact is that till yesterday she didn't reveal that she was against the proposed ordinance. Even today, while announcing her resignation, she did not say the ordinance was a bad idea. Rather, at 9 am today, a senior Congress leader asked, "Why should Sonia Gandhi resign?" He argued that the laws of the land should decide first if she was holding an office of profit. But he had no answer why, if she didn't, the Budget session of Parliament was abruptly adjourned  yesterday?

According to insiders, she did not even share her plan of resignation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh till late morning today. "It was her own personal decision," claims a Congress leader. It is another matter that all others who are also tainted by the same charge now face embarrassment.

Mrs Gandhi has once again projected her moral edge against the existing lot of politicians, but a few factors cannot be overlooked.

  • Why was the budget session of Parliament adjourned sine die? That was unwarranted. Does that mean till yesterday Mrs Gandhi was not against the idea of promulgating an ordinance?
  • Her power and authority are not diminished because she has only resigned from the membership of Parliament (which she will contest again) and from an obscure outfit, the National Advisory Council, which is disliked by the most ministers as it is full of Leftists or Left-of-Centre types. She could afford to resign because in the sycophantic Congress, her resignation is immaterial. Resignation or no, her power within the party remains unchallenged, undiminished.
  • She was and continues to be the chairperson of the all-powerful UPA, and that is all that matters.

Congress culture exists and survives around the Gandhi family. Before and after her resignation Mrs Gandhi remains the most powerful person in the government and outside. So what's all the fuss about?

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Sheela Bhatt