As an unknown Indian fascinated by the dimensions of Indian politics and its varied and rapidly changing hues, I was tempted to also pay a personal tribute to the Congress president on her successful completion of 15 years at the helm of the family conglomerate. Being an ordinary Indian I did not have the gumption to walk up to 10 Janpath and seek to meet Madam in order to convey my heartfelt wishes, nor did I have, until today, the leisure to put my thoughts to paper. Therefore, readers will perhaps forgive me this delayed homage to ‘her who must not be named’!
For a person who had started off by saying that she would not enter politics, nor become a Congress member but ‘only help the party as a person belonging to the Congress family’, for a person who had declared ‘I am just a four anna member, I will not occupy any position’, the political journey of the last fifteen years has been a remarkable saga of survival and machinations. She has, in terms of political years, outlived most other Congress presidents and is about to equal – in political terms – the records of her grandfather-in-law and her mother-in-law. For Congressmen eternally surviving on the first family’s stock of political oxygen, she has already become part of the pantheon of the Congress immortals.
For one who began her public political career by engineering the ‘coup de toilette’ by directing her henchmen to lock up the then octogenarian national president of the Congress, she has always displayed a street-smart political sense which dwarfs her original compatriots of the Machiavellian mould.
With the help of some faithful, she went about demolishing her so-called adversaries. When Purno Sangma asked her in that fateful CWC meeting as to what answer he would give voters who ask him ‘why she had lived in India as a foreigner for 17 years and why she had not opted for Indian citizenship in 1968’, she promptly expelled him. Yet, unlike like her mother-in-law who never forgot and rarely forgave, she forgave only to strike back. After a decade of that expulsion, she accommodated Purno’s daughter in the Central Ministry, received him and talked him into publicly declaring that he had made amends and that she had graciously forgotten the past.
Right when things were appearing to look up for the former Speaker, she intervened to pull the rug from beneath his feet by denying him an audience when he came with his petition for the presidency. Similarly, she bought peace with Purno’s erstwhile political colleagues in the NCP by distributing Ministerial berths and yet kept their ambitions and politics in check.
In this manner she neutralised most of her adversaries. The instance of the vocal anti-Bofors Jaipal Reddy is a case in point. She digested the man with a Cabinet berth for the last nine years and has politically silenced him forever. Karan Singh, who deserted her mother-in-law post emergency, was weaned back into the fold, made to oppose a party which articulated all that he stood for, was given a few crumbs of office, and by being kept away from major political assignments, was gradually made politically irrelevant. It hugely served her purpose to neutralise, to politically paralyse and yet keep within the fold a public personality who spoke of Hinduism, Bharatiya sanskriti and publicly recited the Vedas and the Upanishads.
With great dexterity and ruthlessness she went about consolidating her gains, turning the party into a complete family conglomerate, sharpening its international networking skills and seeing it returning to power over two consecutive turns with an increased tally. No one can fault her performance here, she has lived up to and even bettered her mother-in-law’s legacy, taking control and using without restraint every state institution for the consolidation of her and her family’s political stranglehold over the party and the people of India. The brazen use of the CBI smacks of a mafiosiesque mindset which has long become extinct in mature democracies.
A distinguished non-resident Indian columnist calling her the socialist godmother of India said that her foreign origin issue was dead and the fact that she has lived in India for over four decades made her Indian. I think not, her origins and perceptions of India do remain an issue. We have, for example, never known in these long years, what her thoughts are on India, her traditions, way of being, ethos and civilisation. We have never seen her articulating her inmost thoughts on this land.
In the past, there often was a frivolous habit by sycophants of comparing her to Sister Nivedita, the Hinduised Western disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who lived in India for a little over a decade and died young after having stirred the imagination of Indian youth towards their culture, religion and parampara. Nivedita was convinced of the need to internalise and connect with the triad of ‘jana-desha-dharma’ if one aspired to truly serve the country in the public sphere. I am not sure if the object of my tribute has successfully brought that about in the last four odd decades, at least there never has been public displays of that connect. The issue of origin, orientation and assimilation remains – it is not dead. Electoral returns and dividends alone are not yardsticks for measuring issues of psyche and civilisational spirit.
During the days when he publicly opposed the Bofors deal, Jaipal was once at his eloquent best in Parliament, he is said to have told the Speaker that the main problem was not with the ‘non-resident Indians’, it was more crucially with the ‘resident non-Indian.’
Too bad that while that problem persists and rankles, the likes of Jaipal have crossed over to the other side!