Sonia Gandhi completes 15 years as president of the Congress. The longest, we are told, by any Congress leader to date. Much has been written to mark the occasion. Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argues that a critical appraisal of Sonia Gandhi’s tenure has to focus more on the leftist drift of the Congress and not on her Italian origins. Swapan Dasgupta, writing earlier The Telegraph on Friday, has a different argument on how the political intrigue surrounding Italy for vastly different reasons over the decades ultimately finds its way back to the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress, fairly or unfairly.
Fifteen years since her ascent to the Congress presidency and nine years since her party has been in power, if the foreign origin issue is still the elephant in the room, it is perhaps because Sonia Gandhi remains the least scrutinised of Indian politicians in stark contrast to the power she wields.
One no longer recalls the last serious interview with Sonia Gandhi by anyone in the Indian media. Most reportage on her is either speculative or spin-doctored carefully by a layer of Congress spokespersons.
Most recently the absolute silence by the Indian media during her indisposition on account of an undisclosed ailment stood in stark contrast to the TRP-hungry reporting behaviour of 24×7 news channels. Much of Delhi’s media continues to remain in awe of her while being complicit with the Congress in perpetuating the myth around her persona.
For someone who has been in the public limelight for decades now, the shallow nature of media scrutiny is a mystery indeed. Considering that even before she became the Congress President, she was both the Daughter-in-law of a Prime Minister and the wife of a Prime Minister it is stunning that not a whole lot known of how power wielded is from 10 Janpath.
Consider this interesting, if not scientifically substantial fact, on how stark the contrast is in the public scrutiny of two of the most polarising politicians of our generation.
A Google keyword search on ‘Sonia Gandhi’ returns about 8.6 million search results. A Google keyword search on ‘Narendra Modi’ returns about 38.1 million search results. The contrast cannot be starker given the amount of public scrutiny Narendra Modi has been put to in the 12 years he has been in public limelight.
Also consider this interesting graphic from ‘Google Trends’ for the period since 2008.
Blue for Sonia Gandhi and red for Narendra Modi
It reflects a significant divergence in public interest in news related to ‘Sonia Gandhi’ and ‘Narendra Modi’. Part of that divergence is of course related to events but a significant proportion of that divergence also has to do with the volume of news coverage which is a measure of the public scrutiny either of them draws as a politician.
If the stark contrast in Google Trends on ‘volume of news search’ reflects the lack of scrutiny, the ‘volume of web search’ explains why.
Consider this graphic from Google Trends for the period since 2004.
Blue for Sonia Gandhi and red for Narendra Modi
The sharp spikes mark the only two significant newsworthy events in Sonia Gandhi’s political career. The first in 2004 when she abdicated from holding executive office to appoint Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. The second from 2011 when she was indisposed due to an unknown illness. The overall declining trend in public interest is also a reflection of how she has managed to stay out of the news in general while the spikes signify how disproportionately the media covers her on an issue with the potential to generate public sympathy.
While the data from Google Trends points to the general lack of public scrutiny, the closest we can get to a serious insight on this is from the 2010 Wikileaks document dump from diplomatic cables across countries. On December 2010, CNN-IBN on its website carried a story titled ‘Wikileaks: Sonia still Italian in her mannerisms’. The CNN-IBN report cites a confidential document titled ‘A garrulous Sonia Gandhi opens up to Maria Shriver’ which according to the CNN-IBM summarises an hour-long conversation Sonia Gandhi had with California’s First Lady on August 3, 2006 on women’s issues, Indian politics and some aspects of her private life.
The following quote from the leaked cable that was reproduced by CNN-IBN is worth paying attention to:
“She presents an intriguing enigma of a warm private personality that remains concealed and is available only to her closest confidants and family members.”
This brings us back to the elephant in the room and the argument by Sadanand Dhume. Can we really divorce Sonia Gandhi’s background, personal faith, beliefs and values shaped by them from the leftist economic policies she has championed? As an example there has been very little scrutiny on the significant role played by leftist Jesuit groups in the campaigns that have led to the big ticket rights based entitlement programmes championed by Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council.
The leftist drift notwithstanding, Sonia Gandhi’s 15-year tenure at the helm of the Congress is a formidable achievement. The manner in which any semblance of political challenge to her from within the Congress has withered away speaks of both the general decimation of mass leaders within the Congress and also the political savvy of her backroom machine.
The political machine that acts as a firewall between the myth of Sonia Gandhi and the reality of Congress’s politics deserves much credit for not only has it managed to keep the Congress in power in Delhi for two terms despite losing State after State, it has also managed to keep the BJP in Delhi on the back-foot on issue after issue.
We may be witnessing a transition of custody of the permanent interests of the Congress Party over from Sonia Gandhi to her son Rahul Gandhi but it is anybody’s guess if we will ever get past the political firewall and the enigmatic personality for a ringside view of the inner workings of 10 Janpath.
The stark contrast in public scrutiny of two of the most polarising politicians of our generation is as much a reflection on their personalities as it is on media hypocrisy.