Five Forty Three

Revolutionizing Indian Election Analysis

Sonia Gandhi: The Aakhri Mughal of Congress


It was in October 2010 when a dozen MLAs belonging to the ruling BJP in Karnataka had rebelled against the leadership and were camping in a Goa resort that the local Congress leadership, whiffing the scent of power for the first time in many years, decided to explore the possibility of forming an alternative government with the support of the JDS. Siddramaiah had then emerged as the consensus candidate to head the Congress party delegation to New Delhi for seeking formal approval of the high command.

A bunch of very excited Congress leaders along with Siddramaiah flew to Delhi and sought an audience with Madam Sonia Gandhi. Two Karnataka Congress veterans with very good command over the English language were assigned the task of explaining all the details of government formation and the arrangement with JDS and the rebel BJP legislators. Sonia sat quietly and gave the Congressmen from Karnataka a patient hearing for close to 45 minutes. At the end of it, all she asked was this, “Why do you want to come to power from the backdoor?”

Siddramaiah and co were stunned by that question, for the least they were expecting was a pat on the back for dislodging the first BJP government in south India. They tried to then explain how the ‘communal’ BJP was growing every day in Karnataka and how the state might end up becoming another Gujarat if Congress doesn’t take drastic measures immediately. Again, Sonia had just one crisp sentence as a retort, “You win an election and come to power, not like this!”

This whole incident might come as a shock to many of the Internet Right-Wing Warriors who have a mental picture of a power hungry, corrupt Italian lady who heads the Congress party today. How could it be possible that the Congress president actually disapproves the party’s efforts to regain power from an arch enemy like the BJP? Wasn’t Sonia supposed to be the EVM manipulating power crazed dictator who had possibly come to power only because her husband and mother-in-law were assassinated under mysterious circumstances? Most conspiracy theorists conveniently forget that Sonia was a reluctant leader who remained outside power circles of the Congress party for 7 years after Rajiv’s death – for 5 of those years, Congress was actually in power and she could have easily had it all, if she so desired.

What explains the mystery of Sonia Gandhi then? Answer is simple, plain incompetence! For instance, let us see how the 2010 Karnataka crisis unfolded thereafter. The Congress delegation returned back to Bangalore and gathered all the party legislators in a resort on the outskirts of the town despite Sonia’s admonishment. With the nudging of the governor (former union law minister Hansraj Bharadwaj) and the help of some infamous moneybags, Congress continued its act of destabilizing the government till BJP won a chaotic vote of confidence on the floor of the house. So much for Sonia’s much vaunted power over the party and the Gandhi family’s hold over Congressmen.

This incompetence of leadership has been a Sonia Gandhi hallmark for a long time now. She essentially wields control over the party just by keeping all the factions happy through her central coterie. In the process, every Congress leader has become a law unto himself and has created a mini-corrupt empire of sorts. This arrangement is visible everywhere in the Congress party, be it central ministers or state chief ministers. For instance, the brazenness with which Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy ran AP Congress or the shamelessness of a Vilasrao Deshmukh who managed to return as the CM of Maharashtra despite Sonia’s unwillingness or the way Hooda has managed to contemptuously show the proverbial middle finger to the central leadership time and again are all symptoms of the same malaise. Of course, they do pay their dues to the Dilli sultanate every now and then by say indulging a Vadra’s land deals or an Italian chopper deal etc.

This kind of a mutually beneficial ecosystem is reminiscent of the last century of Mughal Empire after the death of the dreaded Auranzeb in 1707 when the power of Mughals was essentially titular in nature. Just like the Mughals started disintegrating and other regional dynasties like the Nizams or Shahs started emerging as independent power centres, Congress too is disintegrating into regional powerhouses like the Pawars, Mamata Banerjees and Jagan Reddys.

This is the essential difference between an Indira Gandhi and a Sonia Gandhi; while the former had absolute control over the party and the electorate, the latter’s powers are merely symbolic in nature. Even such super powerful leaders as Nijalingappa, Kamraj and Atulya Ghosh had to go into political oblivion once they opposed Indira unlike today when a Mamata Banerjee is prospering in Bengal and a Jagan Reddy is on the verge of becoming the CM of Seema-Andhra, despite daring Sonia openly. But for a criminal error of judgment by Indira of imposing an Emergency, even stalwarts like Moorarji Bhai and Jagjivan Babu wouldn’t have found their brief interlude of sunny days outside the Indira political system.

Realizing the limitations of her political talent and electoral charisma early in her political innings (probably when Pawar rebelled in the late 90s), Sonia has been running the Congress show by simply letting other Congressmen rule and loot as per their own whims and fancies. What this had created is an artificial buoyancy of the Congress party which simply prospered electorally for 10 years just by the virtue of creating mutually beneficial regional and sub-regional ecosystems of individual Congressmen of various hues and shapes. This electoral model had its limitations, for it could succeed only as long as a weak and pliant opposition cohabited in the same Lutyen’s sphere of Dilli. The other factor that kept Congress viable was the secularism bogie which had so many adherents to its tenets that the entire political spectrum would eventually remain subservient to the Congress’s cause of continuing to rule Dilli.

In the midst of all these happy political coexistences, India was changing like never before – a process that nobody in Dilli noticed until it was too late. Tokenism, which had worked fine for long enough to help Sonia prosper as a powerful national leader, had gone long past its sell-by date and India wanted substantial development not just RTI, Secularism, NREGA et al. For instance, 24/7 Bijlee was one of those symbolisms in which every Congress and non-BJP government in India had failed because it simply was not possible to give uninterrupted power supply in a mutually beneficial ecosystem that Congressmen had built under the aegis of Sonia Gandhi. Thus today Congress is facing its third and possibly the last phase of decline in 2014 after being in power for 60 years. Sonia Gandhi is the last Moghul of the Congress party.

Cong DeclineThe first phase of Congress decline actually began in 1977, after emergency, but then the Indira assassination event completely altered the 1984 elections, so for all practical purposes, we take 1989 as the year that marked the first phase of Congress’s electoral decline. This was a decline brought about by three major factors – 1) Increase in the index of opposition unity, 2) Emergence of the hitherto neglected silent majority of the other backward castes and 3) The rise of Hindu nationalism. This first phase lasted only about half-a-decade even as Congress lost its primacy as the lone dominant political force in India, for the party consolidated itself at the sub-40% national vote-share levels.

The second phase of Congress’s decline began in the mid-90s when for the first time the party went below the 30% national vote-share levels. This phase was again characterized by three important factors – 1) Weak Congress leadership, 2) Maturing of Hindu nationalism and 3) Deeply entrenched Mandalization of Indian polity. The commonality between these two phases of Congress’s electoral decline were related to class struggle and vigorous reinforcement of identities.

The Sonia years were essentially an artificial plateau created by building symbiotic political ecosystems with not only other Congress leaders but also other political parties. Sonia never gave the Congress party a new direction, she only temporarily arrested the decline of the party at a huge long term cost to the party and the nation. This plateauing of Congress’s vote-share was misconstrued as a reclaiming of the central legacy by many informed political pundits in Dilli. Eventually that misconception will prove to be costly for the Congress ecosystem.

Today Congress is staring at the third phase of political decline which may prove to be decisive in the end analysis. At every decline Congress has breached a major resistance level in terms of vote-share – 40% level in the late 80s and the 30% levels in the mid-90s – so it is now poised to breach the most important resistance level of all, the 20% levels. Two reasons why a sub-20% vote-share would be a likely deathblow to Congress are;

  1. Seat Conversion CongressIts wide geographic spread which was once a great asset to the party would be converted into a huge liability at below 20% national vote-share levels, for the seat conversion rate would then fall dramatically. For instance, in states like Bihar, Seemandhra, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Delhi etc. Congress may yet get a double digit vote-share but may win no seats at all – this is one of the prices that a political party pays in a first past the post system with a thinly spread out vote-share (for ex: BSP got a national vote-share of 6.2% in 2009 but was able to win only 21 seats, whereas a Samajwadi Party got only 3.4% national vote-share in the same election but won 23 seats due to concentrated presence).
  2. Rahul4PMDeclining demographic support systems – in two of our recent poll surveys of Karnataka and Jharkhand a unique finding that has huge implications is that almost 3 quarters of those who want Rahul Gandhi as the next PM belong to the minority community. This tells us a story of how Congress is losing the support of all other ethnic groups and is becoming an exclusively Muslim-minority centric party. As we have seen just a couple of months ago in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, a purely Muslim vote-bank will not be able to convert votes into seats.

There is an interesting historic parallel to Congress’s demographic disaster. Some 68 years ago in the last general elections of a British controlled India in 1946 a very unique electoral trend was witnessed when Congress got the united spectrum of the whole Hindu vote, whereas Muslim League was the sole beneficiary of an exclusive Muslim vote. Interestingly, just 6 years later (post-partition, of course), in the first general election of an independent India in 1952, the Muslim vote, in almost its entirety, returned back to the Congress while the Muslim League ceased to exist. Today, a Modi led BJP is targeting the united spectrum of the Hindu vote whereas the Congress is depending on an almost exclusive Muslim vote… 5 years later in 2019 history may well repeat itself in its full glory!

Cong ray of hope titledIn the upcoming elections starting from April the 7th, Congress may witness an unprecedented meltdown in the northern, western and eastern India and its only ray of hope is this small belt of southern peninsula where Congress has to win at least 50+ seats out of a possible 95 seats that the party may contest here from a total of 113. The problem for the Congress party is that the three important factors that are causing its third phase of decline are all neither emotive issues of identity nor are they about a class struggle, but in fact they are wholly about governance, or the lack of it – 1) Need for better governance models, 2) Humungous corruption scams of UPA and 3) A united national vote instead of a divided regional vote. On all three counts Congress is found wanting. With pseudo secularism, crony socialism and convenient capitalism as the three weapons, Sonia and Rahul have managed to rule India for a decade, but now all the three weapons have been irreparably blunted, so the end of Congressism is just around the corner.

Detailed Election schedule as announced by the Election Commission


Author: Dr Praveen Patil

A story teller and aspiring writer with special interests in Indian electoral politics

9 thoughts on “Sonia Gandhi: The Aakhri Mughal of Congress

  1. Dear Mr. Patil,
    I don’t think you have given due credit to Mrs. G’s astute personality as the write up seems to suggest only of her incompetence. Granted Mr. G was as dumb a heir as one could get, it’d still take a lot for a lap-dancer to become the first lady of the largest democracy on earth! She’s not as simple as you portray her to be IMHO. I am not disagreeing with most of your writeup. My contention is that you seem to suggest a over-simplified and a rather naive looking profile of Mrs. G. She’s a lot more cunning that what she appears to be. For example take the instance of Mr. PA Sangma’s change of stand about her. Also that of Mr. Pawar’s. These were engineered with no less precision or acumen.

    I agree about why she could be the last person standing under the Congress banner. But to wither her off as a mere incompetent person would be for our own peril as with that assumption we’d be relaxing the guard.

    As always, great thoughts!
    Hats off,
    Jai Hind,

  2. I differ on Sonia G being incompetent. Her selection of MMS was master stroke that silenced opposition within & without. It gave her a clear field. Inside Cong, leaders had the hay day making money left & right & throwing scams on MMS. Rest of your analysis is excellent & I enjoyed it.

    • I think it’d be too naive to imagine she stepped aside voluntarily and made way for MMS. No one knows what transpired between the then President and Mrs Gandhi which made her change her mind. I remember looking at the video footage of her walking into the president’s office (all merry and happy, as she was in the verge of becoming PM of India), and coming out of the offices with a pale face. Well, I’m not an expect to decipher what transpired in the meeting by looking at her not-so-enthusiastic face coming out. But it does NOT need an expert to see and make out ones disappointment.

      My guess is that She went to stake claim; Kalam advised her otherwise citing constitutionality reasons and she had to find a replacement.

      Even Dushshsyana – recommended Karna to take place of Duryodhana when the later decides to go for penance for a while. Blind loyalty factor was very evident with MMS for he was offered the most desirable job of leading country’s economy (when he was a not-so-well-known professor teaching his version of economy to few students) by Gandhi family. So he was the obvious choice!

      Jai Hind

  3. I’m sorry to say but you’re letting your prejudices come in the way of your analytical ability.

    First, to go back to the Karnataka example – you miss two important events which do Sonia credit (albeit in hindsight, but fairness requires you mentioned them) 1. JDS betrayal of the BJP in 2007-08 2. Congress’ eventual win in Karnataka. If Congress had caused a split in BJP, they’d have been “Gujarat-ed” in Karnataka for a generation, Yeddy or no Yeddy. Instead, whether for good reasons or plain luck, they recognized the inherent instability of a man like Yeddy and allowed the BJP to self-destruct. As the Brits say, never lance a boil until it is ready. The BJP boil could not have been lanced in 2010 without causing major damage to the Congress in the process. Of course disillusionment has set in with Shettar as well, but because he’s waited out the time, he gets five years (instead of an unstable miniscule majority) to make course corrections.

    Second, and as others have pointed out, she’s managed to hold together an alliance as big as the earlier NDA for longer than the earlier NDA. As much as Atal-ji was the consummate politician to be able to hold together a diverse coalition for as long as he did, you can’t dismiss Sonia for having held the UPA together for as long as she has done.

    I agree that the Congress is in long term decline (because of greater political competition) and I agree that it has much to do with its darbari culture that’s has made it like a fat and complacent Virender Sehwag. However, predictions of “disappear in a few months” are IMHO a bit exaggerated and I think a true indicator of the Congress’ future will be the mannerthey comport themselves once out of power. Will the party adapt to the new realities of an urbanizing, aspiring and connected India? Or still cling to dynasty and patronage as the true path to power?

    Personally, I think they’ll do the latter but wierder things have happened in Indian politics.

  4. I fully agree with Dr Patil. Sonia’s incompetency was not visible in the face of an equally incompetent opposition led by an old man. No Modi-led BJP is unmasking that incompetence of Sonia. This is the one reason why all outside BJP and even a few within, had opposed Modi being annointed as PM candidate, and tried their best to even postpone it if not stall.

  5. The current situation of Congress is akin to a frog in boiling water not realising that its getting cooked under slow flame eventually leading to its death. Congress has not realised this during UPA 2 regime due to sheer brazenness or complacency but it will cost it irreversibly.

    Your analysis is well put & explained the reasons for its decline and I pretty much agree on most of them.

  6. sonia’s incompetency was also on display with the TN elections in 2006. There was a golden chance for Congress to get back to power after some 40 years. DMK needed the support of Congress and yet DMK railroaded the Congress. Madame accepted the humiliation by DMK without a protest. And right now, Congress is a pariah in the state. WHy would anyone vote for the party?

  7. You are right.They had 206 seats, a bounty in 2009.They have frittered it away.How they did not want Raja and Kalmadi and then accommodated them under pressure. They thought we were all fools.How they used CBI against Modi? Amit Shah? How they funded anti Modi NGO industry.They thought voters were fools.How they projected Rajasthan as the laboratory of welfare state ? And the way the lost it! How they brought in “Communal violence bill” , which is against 85% of the voters? Even now, look at the way they lined up all those ordinances.Presuming that they had a rubber stamp there.And also presuming that people will be swayed by those papers.It is good that it will be over – soon.

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