Unlike many political leaders who are inclined to shoot from the hip, Congress president Sonia Gandhi takes caution to an extreme. Whether this is born out of her own tentativeness in matters of public policy or stems from a very European penchant for rigour over impulsiveness is something best left to professional Sonia-watchers to asse-ss. What, however, is undeniable is that the Congress matriarch very rarely deviates from a carefully considered script — at least as far as public utterances are concerned. She leaves very little to chance.
There is now emerging evidence to suggest that Mrs Gandhi’s public response to the Delhi high court decision summoning her and all the other respondents to make a personal appearance on December 19 in connection with the National Herald case wasn’t spontaneous. Her seemingly defiant assertion — “I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I am not scared of anyone.” — was crafted after exhaustive consultations with lawyers and other senior leaders of the Congress. It was, in short, a carefully considered response to an event few in her charmed circle had even anticipated.
The scripted response is very significant for what it reveals about both the Congress president and the political impulses of the party. That the daughter-in-law was quite consciously drawing a parallel between her predicament and that of Indira Gandhi during the Janata Party interregnum between 1977 and 1979 is obvious. For many in the Congress, the manner in which the imperious Indira Gandhi challenged the attempts of the Janata government to prosecute her for Emergency “excesses” is the stuff of legends.
In the Congress mythology, the horrors of the Emergency and the electoral debacle of 1975 have been seamlessly merged with the post-Emergency revival of the party by the supreme leader. Far from being contrite over the 19-month suspension of democracy, the Congress remains completely unapologetic about its record. Indeed, Indira Gandhi’s dramatised arrest and the contempt she showered on the Shah Commission have come to be regarded as model responses to political adversity. The intellectual origins of the Congress Party’s disruption of Parliament and its determination to prevent all legislative business in the Rajya Sabha where it still has a commanding presence can be traced back to Indira Gandhi’s bellicosity between 1977 and 1979.
Secondly, by reaffirming her political pedigree, the Congress president was driving home the point that the dynastic principle remains the defining creed of the Congress. The Congress may well have slumped to its worst electoral performance in 2014, but what is noteworthy is that no accusing finger was pointed at either the Congress president or vice-president Rahul Gandhi — at least not publicly. By invoking her mother-in-law, Mrs Gandhi was also informing her party supporters that the Congress will not exist as a cohesive body without the dynastic cement.
Not that there is any immediate danger of the Congress falling apart or undergoing a split along the lines of the one experienced in 1977 when stalwarts such as Brahmananda Reddy, Devaraj Urs, Sid-dhartha Shankar Ray, Y.B. Chavan and Sharad Pawar expelled Indira Gandhi from the party. But Mrs Gandhi was merely issuing a reminder that the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi are joined at the hip.
Mrs Gandhi’s defiant invocation of Indira Gandhi was directed principally at her own party and aimed at bolstering the argument that the attitude towards the Narendra Modi government must not stop short of total and uncompromising war. The Congress has been at pains to suggest that accusations of corrup-tions — whether levelled by government agencies against former minis-ters or private individuals such as Subramanian Swamy against the Gandhi family — are imaginary, spiteful and politically motivated. For the purposes of this argument, even the important distinction between executive action and judicial scrutiny has been obliterated. Thus, the tax raids on Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh and Karti Chidambaram (son of P. Chidambaram) have been put on par with a high court notice to the Gandhi family and its close associates to make a personal appearance.
To the untrained eye, the fuss over a mere per-sonal appearance may seem a trifle excessive and over the top. Mrs Gandhi’s carefully con-sidered response may have been dripping with political meanings that the loyal Congress worker would have grasped. To the outsider, the response seems eerily similar to the question that many petty officials and ordinary citizens have often been asked by people walking with a swagger: “Jaantey nahin main kaun hoon?” (Don’t you know who I am?).
That Mrs Gandhi responded to a high court summons with the ultimate Delhi swagger statement is revealing and points to the possible disconnect between those who think politically and those who live life normally.
But maybe this very Indian mantra of arrogance was necessitated by an associated compulsion: to ensure the special status of the Gandhi family in a republic that is ostensibly committed to the principle of equality before the law. The creation of a royal mystique around the proverbial first family is an important facet of the Congress’s projection of itself as the natural party of government and its more exalted members as special citizens. The presence of Mrs Gandhi and Mr Gandhi inside a crowded courtroom of the Delhi High Court is by no means a colossal inconvenience. Its importance is purely symbolic: to indicate that there is nominal equality before the law. Yet it is that symbolism that the custodians of the Congress find so utterly repugnant.
If, on December 19, the “first family” stands up before the presiding judge, as all respondents in a court case routinely do, it will diminish its lofty standing in the eyes of the people. It will establish a principle that, perhaps, wasn’t meant for universal application. In Britain, the only remaining country (along with Japan) with a highly evolved sense of royalty, there is a constitutional principle: “The Queen (or King) can do no wrong.” The state is represented in the person of the monarch and it implies that the Queen in person cannot be dragged to court.
That’s a principle some devotees ideally would want to literally extend to the monarch of the Congress. “A subject and a sovereign,” King Charles I maintained, even as he faced his executioner, “are clean different things.” The Congress loyalists would agree.
The writer is a senior journalist