Grand gamble of a daughter-in-law

Updated: Mar 24 2006, 05:30am hrs
With one swift stroke Sonia Gandhi has turned the tables on her opponents baying for her blood on the office-of-profit issue by resigning from the Lok Sabha and from the chairmanship of the National Advisory Council. She has made the best of a bad bargain and defused a situation which was beginning to look grim for her, the party and for the Manmohan Singh government.

It goes without saying that it might have been better had she decided to resign a day before Parliament was adjourned sine die on Wednesday. That one act of the government gave credence to allegations that it had resorted to a last-minute decision to curtail the Budget session to save her, by promulgating an ordinance to exempt certain offices, including NAC, which she has headed, from the office-of-profit category.

Reading the writing on the wall and quick to control the damage, Sonia Gandhi moved swiftly, quicker than Jaya Bachchan had done, who waited to be disqualified. Gandhi acted before a complaint against her reached the Election

Commission.

While a state government could get away with changing the law retrospectively to save an individual, to do this at the central level had serious implications, particularly when it involved the ruling Congress chief.

Sonias resignation will have its implications for all those who may be seen to be holding offices of profit or are in the grey area. Though the CPM has ruled out resignation by its MPs, it is a difficult one for Somnath Chatterjee.

He may not resign from the Lok Sabha but will he continue as Speaker till the issue is sorted out by a legislation As it is, Chatterjee stayed away from the House on Wednesday when the controversy rocked Parliament. Will all those like Subbirami Reddy or Karan Singh also step down, now that the Congress leader has shown the way This would pave the way for elections in a large number of constituencies and for new political realignments.

The normally cautious Gandhi has displayed an ability to take a gamble, which is reminiscent of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. There were glimmers once again of a determination to fight back, which were evident in early 2004, weeks after the Congress lost elections in the Hindi heartland states and she went about putting alliances in place and hit the road in UP. However, after the UPA came to power two years ago, she had let things be, and there was a sense of drift beginning to envelope the party.

Her latest gesture may also shake up the party out of the complacency it has got into after coming to power. If Sonia Gandhi contests for the Lok Sabha again from Rae Barielly, and she said in no uncertain terms that she would, its ripple effect will be felt in the areas surrounding Rae Bareilly.

Depending on how the Congress uses the weapon of her resignation, it could have the potential to stir a moribund Congress in Uttar Pradesh into action and enthuse its workers, though it is a UP Congressman who initiated the move against Bachchan, which backfired. But the Congress will have to go beyond the usual drumbeating it generally resorts to at times like this to take advantage of Sonias latest step.

While middle-class India and the intelligentsia will view Sonia Gandhis resignation as a ploy to get out of a corner, things may be viewed differently by rural India, though it is simplistic to make these divides.

Resignation, renunciation and reluctance have proved to be potent political tools in the past. The `aam admi may not go into the chronology of events or the law but respond more simply by saying, She gave up her post again. She may regain the moral authority she had come to acquire when she declined the countrys prime ministership in 2004.

Recent political history has shown that those who struck quickly and preemptively, quitting in deference to norms and public opinion, when named in a case or a controversy like this, came out of it better than those who stuck on in power, be it Chidambaram or Advani in the hawala case. Natwar Singh lost ground by taking his time to resign.

Whether Sonia Gandhis resignation will give the Congress party an advantage remains to be seen. It could, however, prevent further damage.