Sonia's 'inner voice' silences
critics By Siddharth Srivastava
NEW DELHI - It is the classic instance of
turning political adversity into opportunity.
Congress Party supreme leader and president of the
party, Sonia Gandhi, probably would have been
disqualified from parliament (more on this later),
in any case.
By pre-empting the situation
and resigning as member of parliament in the Lok
Sabha (Lower House), she completely caught the
opposition parties off guard and in the process
has done no harm to her image as a leader who puts
high value on morals and probity in public life.
In a way, the situation is similar to 2004
when the Congress unexpectedly did well in the
general elections, though the stakes this time are
much lower. Then, she refused the post of prime
minister and handed it over to Manmohan Singh, a
catapulted her to a moral
high ground that no other existing political
leader in the country has managed to equal since.
Her famous "inner voice" speech to
Congress members in which she announced her
renunciation completely blunted the opposition
crusade against her foreign origin (she is an
Italian by birth). One prominent Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) leader, Sushma Swaraj, had said that
she would shave her head in shame if Sonia became
This time, though, Sonia
will not have to sacrifice much. She will
certainly be elected back to parliament from her
Rae Bareili constituency in Uttar Pradesh soon,
with the added moral point safely in her kitty.
The opposition, chiefly the BJP, that has been
after her, has been left licking its wounds once
The current saga began when,
ironically, a local Congress politician, taking
advantage of a legal loophole, appealed to the
independent Election Commission (EC) of India that
the actress-MP Jaya Bachchan held an "office of
profit" as chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Film
Development Council, essentially an honorary post
due to Jaya's vast experience in the field.
Technically and legally, Jaya was in the
wrong. Thus, the president of India, on the
recommendation of the EC, disqualified Jaya from
the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) last week, the first
such instance in India's constitutional history.
There are several whispers to suggest that
the case against Jaya was filed at the behest of
Sonia herself, as the Bachchans and the Gandhis go
back a long time. Jaya is the wife of popular
Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan and, at one
time, very close friends of the Gandhi family.
Amitabh was the late Rajiv Gandhi's (a former
prime minister and Sonia's husband) closest buddy
and a minister in his government.
Following the untimely assassination of
Rajiv and the sidelining of the Gandhis in Indian
politics, Sonia heavily relied on Amitabh for
advice and emotional support. However, matters
took a turn for the worse and the two families
fell out. Nobody knows what exactly caused it as
both the sides have maintained a studied silence
on the issue. Amitabh, who at over 60 remains
India's top star, has had trouble with tax
officials, controlled by the federal government.
Politically, the Bachchans have aligned
themselves with a regional outfit, the Samajwadi
Party (SP). The SP has a powerful presence in the
crucial northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP),
where the Congress desperately wants to win to rid
itself of its troublesome coalition partners.
While the Congress might have privately
rejoiced at Jaya's ouster from parliament, the BJP
and SP soon trained their guns on Sonia, saying
that her position as chairman of the National
Advisory Council, which functions as a government
think tank and bestows on her the rank of a
cabinet minister, also contravened the
constitution's norms on "office of profit". The
opposition leveled similar charges against Sonia's
role as the chairman of the Rajiv Gandhi
An appeal was made to the
president who forwarded it to the EC, two of whose
members were appointed by the previous BJP-led
federal government. Going by legal
interpretations, it seems that Sonia would have
In a bid to save her, a
panicked government and its left allies (whose MPs
also face similar charges) chose to adjourn the
budget session of parliament on Wednesday to
enable the cabinet to pass an ordinance that could
amend the current rules of "office of profit" and
thereby protect Sonia. She obviously had other
ideas, even as the "inner voice" came into play
After submitting her resignation,
Sonia said, "For two days some people are creating
an atmosphere in the country as if the government
and parliament was being used only for my benefit.
This has caused extreme anguish to me. I have said
it before that I have not stepped into political
and public life for personal gain. I have taken a
pledge to serve the country, Indian society and
protect secular values."
Indeed, Sonia has
managed to add a fresh layer to her moral facade
that was in danger of peeling off in the melee of
opposition charges against the Congress-led
government, which range from corruption in defense
deals to a sustained policy of appeasing Muslims.
This, in a way, speaks volume about Sonia's
political acumen, as other, far more experienced
political leaders, have lost face in the past.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
had tried to carefully fit into a moderate "mask"
that unraveled due to his obtuse justification of
the Gujarat riots that killed more than 2,000
There is no doubt though that
Sonia's evidently smaller sacrifice this time
re-emphasizes her stature and could affect the
assembly elections due in the next two months in
the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil
Nadu and Pondicherry. It diverts attention from
more substantial issues and have brought focus
again on the Congress' most potent vote-gathering
mascot - Sonia herself.
The spirit of
sacrifice is held as the highest Hindu virtue.
Manmohan has showered on her the encomium of being
the "country's tallest leader", while Congress
cadres are on the streets proclaiming their
leaders' supreme status.
To the credit of
Sonia, she has been taking up causes that do
reflect her quest for moral values. It was at her
request that the Jessica Lal case (in which the
model was allegedly shot by the son of a powerful
politician) was reopened, with the government
planning a revamp of the Criminal Act. The rural
employment scheme was her idea as well.
Indeed, in the current round of political
brinkmanship Sonia has again won, by quite a
margin. The opposition will hate the attention on
her. The nation, however, has lost valuable
legislature time. More will be lost in what will
be an unnecessary by-election drama at Rae Bareli.
It is also quite certain that the norms of "office
of profit" will be amended once the current
brouhaha is over, as many more MPs will be
Srivastava is a New Delhi-based