The aggressive streak exhibited by Sonia Gandhi first in parliament following L.K. Advani’s description of the government as “illegitimate”, which he later withdrew, and then during her address to Congress MPs, is a sign of the need for boosting the morale of a seemingly unstable party.
Since offence is often the best form of defence, the Congress president has apparently realised that a dose of adrenaline is what the party requires. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, has taken up the cudgels for once, as is evident from his assertion to media persons while returning from Teheran that there is no question of his resigning and that the opposition BJP was negating democracy by blocking parliament’s functioning. The belligerence is undoubtedly a much-needed recipe, considering how the Congress has been under attack for more than a year.
First, there was the surfacing of various scandals, real or perceived, involving mobile phone licenses, the hosting of the Commonwealth Games and the award of coal mininig rights. But the Congress’ response has not been sufficiently robust till now, probably because corruption, the party’s perennial weak spot, is the central issue in all these scandals. However, Sonia Gandhi’s stance does indicate that she is dissatisfied with the government’s and the party’s efforts to counter the charges against them.
Since various state elections and the crucial general election of 2014 are looming ahead, she has probably realised that there is not a moment to lose for rescuing the Congress from its present predicament when its chances of success appear to be bleak.
Her initiative might have been prompted by Rahul Gandhi’s failure to make a notable impression on the political scene. What is more, the heir-apparent seems to have disappeared backstage following the Congress’s lacklustre performance in the Uttar Pradesh elections despite his energetic campaigning.
It might, however, be asked whether Sonia Gandhi’s decision to carry the fight into the opposition camp has come rather late in the day. Even now, she is apparently depending more on the party’s spokespersons to take a combative position rather than fully assuming the task herself – or asking Rahul to do so.
Apart from her cutting observation that “blackmail” was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “bread and butter” in the context of the latter’s stalling of parliament on coalgate, she has apparently left it mainly to the party members to carry on with the offensive. She however cannot be unaware of the fact that even the articulateness of P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Ambika Soni at a joint press conference is not always convincing enough to deflect criticism.
Arguably, the party and the government would have been able to make a better impact if the prime minister had been more forthcoming. But, that is not his style, as his observation that he has to maintain the dignity of his office shows. As a result, with both the present prime minister and a possible future one – Rahul Gandhi – playing, in the main, a low-key role, the Congress continues to give the impression of being on the back foot. This is the time, therefore, for Sonia Gandhi to be more of a hands-on leader, as in the run-up to the 2004 elections when her popularity ratings were always high and only a few points behind Atal Behari Vajpayee.
But, whether because she is no longer as fit as she was eight years ago or because she does not want to overshadow Rahul, she is still not as much in the forefront as she might have been. Such reluctance or diffidence will not serve the party well at a time of hyperactive television channels and when the opposition has smelt blood.
Fortunately for the Congress, the opposition remains a house divided and its tactics, too, show signs of desperation. While the BJP has courted “majestic isolation”, to quote its leader, Arun Jaitley, on the issue of stalling parliament, which has little support outside the party, the attempt of some of the others like the two former allies, the Left and the Samajwadi Party, to revive the old Third Front has limited chances of success because the Samajwadi Party is unlikely to ditch the Congress.
Even within the BJP, the constant disruption of the parliamentary proceedings is evidently a game of one-upmanship being played by Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and perhaps also Advani in the context of their prime ministerial ambitions. As for the fourth aspirant, Narendra Modi, the latest Supreme Court verdict on the Naroda Patiya massacre during the Gujarat riots of 2002 has dented his image yet again.
But the Congress is not yet out of the woods even if conventional wisdom and poll predictions point to a drop in its tally of Lok Sabha seats. However, it will take more than verbal belligerence to revive the party’s fortunes. Only a purposeful pursuit of economic reforms can do the trick.
By Amulya Ganguli