Over two decades ago, shortly after she had entered politics, Sonia Gandhi gave me her first-ever TV interview. I asked her the obvious question. The Congress had offered to make her party president in 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. She had turned it down (the job went to Narasimha Rao who then became Prime Minister), and had refused to accept any political responsibilities for the next several years. So why had Sonia now taken over as Congress President?
She replied that politics was not something she enjoyed. But when she saw the Congress disintegrating before her eyes, she felt she could no longer walk past the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and her husband without feeling some sense of shame. It was possible, she said, that her entry into politics would make no difference – but she would never forgive herself if she did not try.
Initially, her entry did make little difference. The Congress lost the next two elections. She was widely ridiculed for her lack of political instincts. But then, against the odds, the Congress-led opposition defeated Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004. It was assumed that Sonia Gandhi, as the leader of the single largest party, would be Prime Minister. Instead, she turned the job down and asked the parliamentary party to elect Manmohan Singh as its leader instead.
That decision – unusual in Indian politics – was widely hailed. When I interviewed her (for NDTV) again once, the UPA was in power, and she repeated what she had said in the first interview: she was not in this for power or position, but only to uphold the liberal, secular values that the Congress had always fought for. Clearly, people believed her because at the next election, the Congress came back to power with many more seats.
It is hard to reconcile the perception of the Gandhis in those days with the way in which they are frequently portrayed now. During UPA II, the BJP launched a huge social media campaign portraying the family as India’s version of the Marcoses: a corrupt dynasty who had robbed India blind.
I don’t think anyone at the senior levels of the Congress understood social media or was aware of its impact, so the campaign went unchallenged. So did another campaign portraying Rahul Gandhi as an entitled duffer, a Pappu, the spoilt son of powerful parents.
In large part, the campaign against Rahul contributed to the drubbing the party received in the 2014 polls. And so powerful has its impact been that in the 2019 election, even when Rahul Gandhi raised valid points, people did not take him seriously, contrasting his entitled Pappu status with the self-made-man image of Narendra Modi.
No social media campaign, no matter how effective, can work unless its targets play along with its narrative. Unfortunately for the Congress, it has fallen into every trap set for it by the BJP. After the 2014 defeat, Rahul made no attempt to rid himself of his image as a high-handed person who tears up ordinances in public. His colleagues found him inaccessible and when he did meet them, he seemed to have no interest in listening. Instead, he surrounded himself with a group of well-educated dynasts who seemed to have got into politics only because it was Daddy’s business.
Worse still, he picked on the BJP where it was its strongest: the PM’s own popularity. Personal attacks on Narendra Modi, including calling him a ‘chor’, led to an electoral collapse in 2019. But Rahul persists with that strategy.
As if to confirm the BJP narrative, the Congress has also messed up the post-2019 leadership issue. Rahul resigned after the electoral debacle, said he wouldn’t come back and that no member of his family would replace him. That sounded impressive. But his mother returned as interim chief, Rahul has not gone anywhere and there is now a concerted attempt to make him President again. His sister is also playing a larger role in the party, despite the suggestion that no member of the family would step in.
This suits the BJP narrative. It makes it sound like the family has no intention of ever loosening its hold on the Congress, and that its pious declarations about stepping aside were hypocrtitical.
It is now clear that the dynasts who Rahul surrounded himself with had no commitment to what Sonia called Congress values. At a time when the BJP represents the absolute antithesis of what the Congress should stand for, the dynasts are happy to join it or to conspire with it. And when they do, nobody makes the point that these young politicians have no ideology at all. Instead, the popular view is that the Congress is happy to get rid of smart young politicians who could pose a threat to Rahul.
I believe Rahul had the right idea in 2019 when he resigned after leading his party to a second electoral disaster. The Congress should then have called a party election and introduced some internal democracy. Its failure to do so convinced many of the people who once supported it that the party will remain a family business.
It is all a far cry from a reluctant Sonia Gandhi pushing herself into politics. Now, in the public mind at least, the Gandhis have further advanced the BJP caricature of themselves as a family that feels it has the right to rule.
Perhaps this caricature is unfair and inaccurate. But when the Gandhis themselves seem so willing to appear to live up to it, how can the Congress possibly hope to defeat Narendra Modi?
(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.