Deciphering Sonia

Deconstruction of often contradictory facets of her personality that has transformed Indian politics


Shiv Visvanathan | May 10, 2010

A friend of mine once tried to work out the differences between the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi. He said that it was more than a question of persona. A persona stands between mask and face, individual and role. Sonia Gandhi, he claimed, was an ecology. She was also a translator. If Singh represented government and economics, Sonia stood for governance and the human face of the economy. He added Sonia could not be understood alone or monadically. She is a value frame of connections. Her meaning like any linguistic term moves with context. She conveys different sets of messages to different sets of people. He advised me not to seek individual biography as one might with Indira Gandhi but seek a sociography. ‘The woman is a circuit of connections.’ I think the advice was both guarded and wise. To understand Sonia, one shifts her from party to government, from mother to politician, from woman to nation to understand the multiverse of Sonia as a travelling fact. The negative and the positive then combine in a kaleidoscope of fascinating angles.

Let us begin semiotically. She is picture perfect. Yet her politics is never a costume ball. Her clothes are right. They convey sophistication, an ease about surroundings, a body under control. She moves like an icon and knows it. She conveys thoughtfulness and a sense of having thought through issues. Sonia never impresses as a hoarding. She is never larger than life, an inflation of herself like a NT Rama Rao or a Mayawati. She is life-like, life-size, in fact, true to life. She is more of a photograph but never a still life. She begins as noun and graduates to be a verb, creating a transition from presence to decisive action.  The colours are always right, the combinations subtle. It is as if dress and the appropriateness of dress reflect the wider search for correctness. She has arrived and knows she is a presence. She is able to make her own Hindi Jokes, laugh quietly in a way her husband could not. She has a vintage quality which Rajiv never conveyed and Rahul is far from acquiring. She represents the outside as inside, the prodigal as family, the stranger who worked at being at home in a world she never dreamt of domesticating, a backstage mind as a public imagination.

One reluctantly stops realising one is outlining an almost cryptic character certificate. But character she is and has and it is this sense of character that has helped her transform Indian politics. Calling her Italian or international or a doll or even a puppet makes little sense. She is a leader and knows it. In fact, Peter Drucker’s distinction between manager and leader could apply to Manmohan and Sonia. Singh as manager does things right, Sonia as leader guarantees that one hopefully does the right things. But between the correct and the true there exists a gap and the challenge before Sonia is that the gap should not become an abyss. To understand this, one has to look at party politics.

Sonia’s control of the Congress party is not in doubt. Her cabinet is a team, a collection of deputies. The ones who dissented have faded away. Arjun Singh or Sangma appear like forgotten footnotes. She has mastered the power game but not yet the ironies and paradoxes of power. Like all Congress men and women, she carries in her life the ambivalence between the logic of the party and the logic of the family. The Congress has made nepotism into an institutional necessity and a fine art. It is the party of the epigones where genealogy functions like a PAN number. A kinship chart could function like an organisational chart and genes provide a tacit code of membership. As a result, the Congress is an embedded party and a powerfully populist one. Yet its real grammar of internal party democracy moves across the fault lines of hypocrisy and sycophancy. Dissent is rare and fated to fail. Oddly and paradoxically, Sonia might approve of critique from outside but dissent inside is a form of sacrilege which triggers the hunt for the scapegoats. The uniformity within is seen as a sign of loyalty, whatever the level of anarchy in performance. Plurality, diversity, tolerance is what one extends to one’s allies. A Prakashi Karat can be subversive, a Lalu problematic or a Mamata, hysterically contradictory. They will be greeted with patience but God help a Congressman who dares to take the cue from them. This creates what I call the Janus face of Sonia and the Congress, a hybridity of tolerance and uniformity which one senses as tactical but which leaves in doubt the integrity of the final gestalt.

The fate of the dynasty always holds in abeyance the future of the Congress as a democratic entity. What haunts Sonia and, in fact, many mimic Congressmen is Rahul Gandhi. Here is a man seen as a harbinger of the future often entangled in time warps. At one level, he represents the youth of the party, at another he signals a Prince Charles in waiting. His initiation period like some pregnancies is a prolonged one. He appears a boy scout in the making, reciting a few everyday lines that flee from memory. While his mother is a walking mnemonic, he stands like a boy scout in politics.

One can acknowledge a few cameo roles, but he is not yet a politician like Digvijay Singh or Chidambaram. His exploits sound simulated. Instead of a politician marathon or a ruthless sprint, here is someone still running a lemon-and-spoon race. It is this, for all the publicity about Rahul having arrived, that conveys the flaw of the party in a democratic sense.

But back to Sonia. In a legislative sense the woman is an adept. She bears a large part of the credit for the Women’s Reservation Bill, and provided a large part of the stamina whereby the Congress survived the nuclear deal. The women’s bill is fundamental and took over a decade to patch together. At one level, it was a national agenda, a vision that other parties shared. At another, it was a personal obsession, a commitment that she felt she had to honour, a search that began in fragments with panchayati raj, with the appointment of a woman as president and as a speaker. It is a radicalisation of the fate of politics few have achieved. Suddenly the OBC or dalit politician sounds like a crotchety patriarch or an absentminded Marxist. Also, there was grace in victory. She didn’t personalise it but saw it as a commitment of all major parties. Rituals of generosity add to her reputation. In that sense, she understands the long run, unlike Keynes who thought we will all be dead, Sonia realised that sustainability begins at home.

She handles politics with ease and threats with equanimity. She plays poker, understands the changing nature of trump cards, allows the Lalus and Amar Singhs their clowing movement in politics, waiting to make the right bids. Of all the Congress politicians, she is the one who has mastered the nuances of time and silence and knows how to use them as poker chips. When a smile can serve as a death sentence, why ask for the crudeness of a guffaw. She extends table manners into politics always honouring an Advani or a Vajpayee. May be, it is an act of reciprocity, a favour, a return for the courtesy they extended in her more vulnerable years.

To her political acuteness, she brings a sense of governance, a complementarity with Manmohan Singh, a jugalbandi which appears as a play of moves between governance and government. If Singh is the technocrat personified, Sonia selectively adopts the face of civil society.
One is not sure she understands everything that she nods about, but one can sense she has appropriated the image if not the content of many issues. Next to the women’s bill, her greatest achievement, at least in sustaining it as an institutional idea, is NREGA and the RTI.  These two ideas represent the two great achievements of civil society as an imagination. By grafting them onto governance, she has amplified the democratic imagination. It is as if you adopt the two prime vaccines against poverty and corruption, even if you do not accept the overall theory of health which is at another level of complexity.

One is not sure whether the government will accept the full consequences of the Sengupta report on the informal economy, or how citizenship will get defined if one accepts the premises of the Report of Nomadic and Pastoral tribes. The two reports are truly radical. One will transform the way we look at rights and the economy, the other, the manner in which we construct citizenship. But for the Congress, some sense of reform is preferable to a paradigm change. RTI and NREGA are humane alternatives which provide the minimum of hope and concern. The very presence of Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, and Harsh Mander guarantees that some of the best of the civil society imagination and its integrity is being incorporated into the government. The NAC with these individuals and also NC Saxena in its midst sounds like the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of the alternative imagination that the Congress so desperately needs. If Sonia creates an incubatory possibility for them, democracy might feel hopeful about the future.

Between meaningful acts of the political like NREGA and the women’s bill, the Congress unfortunately creates the farce. The farce as a political skit can range across poverty to democracy. In reacting to the conspicuous consumption of its own members, it created conspicuous poverty, allegedly cutting down a few bastions of expense. But these have sprouted back revealing that combating poverty as a lifestyle is not yet the real idiom of the Congress. Sonia as an icon has added little here.

Finally, her silent messages of likes and dislikes turn her into a dummy of her own projections, while party men provide the ventriloquism. The recent furore over Amitabh Bachchan’s presence at an inauguration showed that there are a thousand third-rate politicians mimicking Sonia. The epidemic of vigilantism and witch-hunting it creates is worrying. What adds to it is her silence, where reading her lips adds little to our sense of politics.

One final thought. While Sonia adds a lot to governance and the Congress vitimanising its politics, there is always a sense of disquiet. It is what linguists and literary critics would call a synecdochal failure. Synecdoche, as a part of speech, deals with the relation of parts and wholes. One must salute Sonia for revitalising some of the parts. Yet by creating a penumbra of power, one always feels the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The system cannot stand because the Congress as a whole, as a mass and middleclass imagination, needs to rework itself. This will require a struggle of a different kind beyond the power of experts and committees. This wider magic Sonia lacks. It needs a sense of the future as a different country, where the democratisation of democracy will start taking place.

This piece first appeared in the April 16-30 issue of Governance Now magazine.



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