India’s ruling party struggles without Sonia

NEW DELHI - India’s biggest political crisis in years, centred on a fasting anti-graft activist, has tied the government in knots in the absence of the country’s most influential politician, Sonia Gandhi.

By (AFP)

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Published: Fri 26 Aug 2011, 12:48 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:38 PM

The powerful president of the ruling Congress Party has been out of the public eye since the beginning of August following the shock announcement that she was to undergo surgery in the United States.

Since then a complete media blackout has been enforced on her condition and whereabouts, and she has made no comment, either directly or indirectly, on the tumultuous events that have gripped the nation in her absence.

Elected in 2009 with a seemingly unassailable majority, the Congress-led coalition of Premier Manmohan Singh has, in the past month, been rocked by nationwide protests supporting the drive by 74-year-old Anna Hazare for stronger anti-corruption laws.

The ex-army truck driver’s public fast in front of a giant photo of his idol, freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi, has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators daily and left the government flip-flopping in his wake.

First it arrested Hazare, then released him; condemned his campaign, then praised his moral courage.

Some observers say this vacillation would never have been allowed had Gandhi, 64, been at the party tiller.

“The Congress is very much feeling her absence. She would have steered this situation much more smoothly. I don’t think things would have come to this sort of pass,” Rasheed Kidwai, Gandhi biographer and political writer, told AFP.

The political theatrics of Hazare, who has said he does not care “whether I live or die” in his anti-graft fight, have been broadcast round-the-clock on television and received wall-to-wall coverage in the print media.

It has been left almost entirely to the prime minister to provide the public government response, and the soft-spoken Singh has fallen short on several occasions, making him appear out of touch with the national mood.

“I don’t think you would have seen this kind of inept response from the government (if Gandhi had been in India),” said Zoya Hasan, a politics professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Sonia Gandhi is clearly a leader who can bring together opinions,” she said, adding the prime minister “completely misread the public anger” at multi-billion-dollar graft scandals that have implicated government officials.

The media verdict has been along similar lines, with the tabloid Mail Today suggesting Congress was “at sea without Sonia” in a recent front-page story.

“Congress yearns for Sonia in troubled times,” echoed The Times of India on Friday, quoting party MPs as saying Gandhi’s absence had hobbled the party and underscored perceptions of a leadership vacuum.

The Italian-born Gandhi is the widow of assassinated former premier Rajiv Gandhi and was thrust into the byzantine world of Indian politics after his death.

The self-described “reluctant politician” propelled the left-leaning Congress to a surprise win over the then-ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004.

And she led the party to an even bigger second-term victory five years later.

“Congress is a one-leader party and the leader is Sonia,” biographer Kidwai said. “Singh’s role has been largely to run the government while she looks after the political side — that’s her baby.”

The Gandhi dynasty, which stems from first post-independence premier Jawaharlal Nehru and has no link to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, has exerted huge influence in India during most of its post-independence history.

Three family members have been prime ministers and Sonia’s son, Rahul, 41, is tipped to eventually also become premier.

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