Sonia Gandhi is viewed by left-liberals as a leader who successfully took on the Bharatiya Janata Party and ruled the country for 10 years (let’s drop all pretence; she called the shots, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being putty in her hands). Her saffron detractors, on the other hand, accuse her of enjoying power without responsibility and presiding over arguably the most corrupt regime Independent India has ever seen. Her real imprint, however, pertained to four feats: keeping the Nehruvian legacy alive; ensuring that the Congress remained a fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; reviving informal tie-up with left-wing fellow-travellers; and resuscitating socialism.
Sympathetic commentators have portrayed Sonia Gandhi as a bereaved widow reluctantly taking charge of the Congress when all was lost. But this narrative should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, for while she took over the grand old party in 1998, she was never inactive politically. For instance, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, she had condemned the incident—undoubtedly a very political move.
She was never out of the reckoning. Senior party leaders were continuously in touch with her, many of them beseeching her to get actively engaged in politics. Many a foreign dignitary paid a visit to her, anticipating an important role she might play in the future. They were right; she did.
When she took the plunge, she not only leaned towards just the Left Front, whose outside support was crucial for the United Progressive Alliance government for four years (2004-08), but also fraternised with salon socialists, professional revolutionaries, sundry activists, and green nuts. This rainbow coalition was to play a significant role in discrediting the Atal Behari Vajpayee government (1998-2004) and later, when she became powerful, mould economic policy. Once she took charge, free market principles took the backseat and Nehruvian socialism came back on the bandwagon of a myriad of entitlements like the rural job guarantee scheme and the food security law.
She also promoted Rahul Gandhi, making it evident that he would be the inheritor of the party. Her wish has been fulfilled: he is now party president. The fortunes of the Dynasty have been restored—interestingly, not against the aspirations of the top brass.
Sonia Gandhi’s third feat, an informal alliance with fellow-travellers, has had baleful consequences for the country’s economy and prosperity. In a way, history repeated itself. In the late 1960s, her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, had got pally with the Communist Party of India (which became her ally and remained so till 1970) and left-leaning intellectuals.
Till the mid-1960s, the failure of command economy had become evident to all save the hardcore leftists. Lal Bahadur Shastri, a pragmatic man and non-doctrinaire politician, had acknowledged that and taken some steps to discard the worst features of statist policy. However, his untimely death and the ascension of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister aborted any move towards liberalisation. The politically weak Indira Gandhi sought and got the support of not just the CPI, but also of parlour pinks. They allied to cure socialism with more socialism.
The alliance proved to be symbiotic: she not only received the left’s support, but also gained huge popularity by nationalising banks and insurance companies and augmenting the tax incidence; pinkish intellectuals got entrenched in academics and other opinion-making institutions. It was a win-win proposition for Indira Gandhi and the left—and a disaster for the economy. The oil shocks of 1973 made the situation worse. A sagging economy, high inflation, and an army of jobless youngsters made the political situation volatile, leading to the Emergency and, finally, her ouster in 1977.
Sonia Gandhi, too, embraced the left (and now this also included the CPM) and professional radicals. The entire left—in the wilderness for one and a half decades which witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the abomination called liberalisation (from their perspective)—came back with a vengeance. Not only bolder reforming measures like privatisation were rolled back, but landmines were laid in the economic policy—the landmines like revenue-guzzling rural job guarantee scheme and the forest rights law which the Narendra Modi regime wants to steer clear of.
The term “profiteering”, which was of the pre-1991 vintage, made a comeback; and it is still an idea that rules, even though Sonia Gandhi doesn’t. Recently, the Modi government constituted the National Anti-profiteering Authority to ensure that GST rate cuts get transferred to the consumer.
This is the sorry legacy of Sonia Gandhi, a legacy that even PM Modi is unable to shrug off. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the evil that politicians do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones.