Column: Evaluating Sonia: black box leader

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: Mar 23 2013, 06:05am hrs
Ms Gandhi has ruled over the largest democracy, over a billion people, for 9 years, and has yet to hold a press conference

Should Ms Sonia Gandhi, the ruler of the Congress party, be congratulated for finishing 15 years in Indian politics It is not a sign of expertise if an heir becomes king. So why should it be different with Sonia

What does Ms Gandhis political record look like She formally assumed power in April 1998; but a year earlier (March 31, 1997, to be precise), the Congress party under the leadership of Sonia (or the formal head Sitaram Kesri) had withdrawn support to the United Front government. As the accompanying table shows, the Congress obtained the same seats as 1996, but 3 percentage points less votes than the Narsimha Rao 1996 election. The next year, after a full 18 months in power, Sonias Congress obtained the lowest seats ever, 114, but kept its vote share equal to the 1996 level.

The same story continued for the next two elections. In 2009, the vote share remained just a notch below the 1996 level, even though the Congress won 206 seats. Note that vote share is an important indicator of a political partys popularity; the seat share an important indicator of coalition politics. Note also the joint vote share of the Congress and the BJP was the lowest in the coalition-era world, post 1984. Thus, whatever the causes, it was not Sonias or the Congresss popularity that led to its outsized win in 2009.

After the 2009 election, it was quite apparent that Sonia and the party were targeting 273 seats on their own. Given that the vote share had stayed broadly constant, and below the 1996 level, this belief in Congresss invincibility is not suggestive of political prowess. Thus, the bottom line is quite straight forwardthere is nothing in the record to suggest that Sonia has been a successful politicianexcept (and this is an important but) the vital fact that she is the glue that keeps the Congress together.

There is one other aspect of Sonia politics that deserves emphasis. As is commonly believed, the strongest threat to Congresss popularity and continuation in power is the threat from BJPs Narendra Modi. The Congress, and Sonia, have recognised this threat for several years, which is why in the 2007 state elections Sonia coined the phrase Maut ka Saudagar or Merchant of Death to describe Modis alleged involvement in the 2002 Godhra riots. Despite losing the Gujarat election in an overwhelming fashion, the Congress has kept up the pressure on the BJP and Modi. Questions are asked by the press of Modi at every forumwhy dont you apologise for the Godhra killings. It happened under your watch as the chief minister, so at least admit the responsibility, etc.

These are legitimate questions and suggest that civil society, and the media, and the middle class, are to be applauded for demanding this minimum from our politicians. But why is this analogous demand not made from the Congress leadership and the Gandhi family which was in power at the time of the 1984 riots In response to a question about the Sikh riots, and at an election rally on November 19, 1984, Sonias late husband and then Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, stated that When a big tree falls, the earth shakes. Not exactly an apology. While some of Modis political colleagues have been arrested and convicted for their involvement in the Godhra riots, some of the alleged Congress officials were rewarded with Cabinet posts in several Congress governments, including her own UPA rule.

Why is there not a parallel demand for apology from Sonia and the Congress If she wants to be remembered for her political acumen, then one would imagine that Ms Gandhi would go out of her way to apologiseand that if she didnt, the middle class press would hound her, just as it is justifiably hounding Modi. Perhaps one reason the public goes easy on Sonia is because a Congress Sikh leader, Dr Manmohan Singh, has apologised for the Sikh riots. Dr Singh did it in an appropriate place, Parliament, where he stated on August 12, 2005, I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.

This was an apology in every sense of the term. That it came 21 years after the event is problematic, as is the fact that it was tendered by a Sikh. Morally, and politically, it is important that Sonia Gandhi apologise. On the 1984 riots, this is the closest that she has come to apologising, again at an election rally on January 26, 1998: There is no use recalling what we have collectively lost. No words can balm that pain. Consolation from others always somehow sound hollow.

We have the matter of an average vote getting record. We have the matter of the lack of an apology for the Sikh riots. Add to it the fact that Ms Gandhi behaves uniquely with regard to politics, unlike any other political leader in the world, and the media behaves just as uniquely. Consider the following. Why is it normal to question the integrity and worth of all members of the Nehru-Gandhi political family, including and especially her late husband, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, but not politically correct to question Sonia Every political leader has been pilloried in India, and in most democracies. Pilloried for being stupid, unfit to rule and worse, yet such questions are not raised with regard to Sonia. Our free press can make mince-meat of even decent politicians (Manmohan has been variously described as spineless, a nightwatchman following orders, Mumble Singh and worse) and yet the press has never even demanded that the Chairperson of the Congress for 15 years hold a press conference in a language of her choosingEnglish, Hindi or Italian

Consider thisMs Sonia Gandhi has ruled over the largest democracy, over a billion people, for nine years, and has yet to hold a press conference. Does anyone have a clue about her views and/or thinking on any of the major issues facing the country Is she just a Black Box leader

Surjit S Bhalla is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Blufin, a leading financial information company. He can be followed on Twitter, @surjitbhalla