The somewhat iconic picture of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee calling on Sonia Gandhi and stepping out of 10, Janpath has renewed hopes of a Mahajot or Mahagathbandan against Narendra Modi led NDA for 2024.
Would it be on the lines of 2004 UPA when Sonia had played a pivotal role in cementing a rainbow coalition to keep Atal Bihari Vajpayee at bay?
It has been two years since Sonia took over as ‘interim president’ of the AICC. The big question doing the rounds is Whether Sonia would leave the party job by August 10, 2021 and focus on alliance politics to try keeping Narendra Modi out of power in 2024, a task far more formidable than 2004.
Sonia has come a long way from the foreign bahu tag and had developed the ability to overrule Rahul Gandhi during the second leg of UPA [2009-14], reach out to every non-NDA constituent and act swiftly. She was quick to learn that in the age of coalition politics, alliances were the way forward. Many years ago, Sonia and Mulayam Singh Yadav had attended a dinner at Somnath Chatterjee’s residence. Sonia was tucking into a hilsa when Mulayam took a potshot, saying: “Madam, be careful. Hilsa hai. Kanta chubh jayen ge(the fish bone may hurt you).” Sonia’s retort was quick. “Main kanton se joojhna janti hoon(I know how to deal with thorns),” she said.
This explains her ties with the DMK, a party which some senior Congress leaders had, in 1997 accused of being soft on the LTTE, Sri Lankan militant outfit to whose bomb Rajiv Gandhi fell. However, from 2004-2014, she displayed a refreshing approach towards allies, even with people like the NCP which had an ego clash. Her handling of allies and alliance leaders such Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Karunanidhi and others had been better than Atal Bihari Vajpayee or P V Narasimha Rao. In that sense, she has been a first-class first graduate from the University of Life.
Delivering a lecture on “Living politics: what India has taught me” at the Nexus institute Tilburg, Netherlands in 2007, Sonia had observed, “My first political classroom thus echoed to momentous unfolding events and added, “My discovery of India happened differently” Elaborating more on her personal life, Sonia said her days as a daughter-in-law of the prime minister were a life permeated by the turbulence of politics. “Looking back, I can say that it was through the private world of family that the public world of politics came alive for me: living in intimate proximity with people for whom larger questions of ideology and belief, as well as issues relating to politics and governance, were vivid daily realities. She said there were other aspects of living in a political family that had an impact on her as a young bride. “I had to accustom myself to the public gaze, which I found intrusive and hard to endure. I had to learn to curb my spontaneity and instinctive bluntness of speech. Most of all, I had to school myself not to react in the face of falsehood and slander. I had to learn to endure them as the rest of the family did,” she said.
In conclusion, Sonia had said, “those of you who are familiar with India will know that we are famously loquacious. Indeed as Nobel Laureate and Nexus lecturer Amartya Sen has remarked in his book The Argumentative Indian, what grieves and frustrates an Indian most about the prospect of dying is that he will no longer be able to argue back! Not surprisingly, therefore, public life in India is characterized by vigorous debate and vehement contention. The cacophony of politics is the very music of our democracy.”
When Sonia had turned 70 in 2016, she was determined to quit politics for good. However, the rise and consolidation of Modi and Modi-led NDA getting another term in 2019 brought “Sonia Gandhi dobara.” For 10, Janpath insiders, it is a combination of two factors — her motherly instincts to make Rahul a success and her own assessment that Sonia factor can bring a rainbow coalition consisting of the likes of DMK, RJD, Trinamul, NCP, SP, BSP, Left parties and others. The possibility of an ego clash among whimsical Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and others like Akhilesh Yadav, M K Stalin, Tejaswi Yadav and Sharad Pawar is a stark reality. Sonia, unlike Jayaprakash Narayan of 1975-77 or a V P Singh and Harkishan Singh surjeet of 1989, 1996 and 2004, lacks the high quotient of respect and acceptability but has enough clout to bring warring parties together.
It must be understood again that both Rahul and Sonia are not power wielders, rather they fancy themselves as trustees of power. Sonia showed that she could be all-powerful and relevant without becoming prime minister between 2004-2014. Rahul too avoided becoming a minister under Manmohan and at 51, Rahul is still not in a tearing hurry to project himself as a prime ministerial candidate. That may actually turn out to be a trump card for Sonia and an incentive for regional players like Mamata Banerjee.