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Resurgent Congress, obsessively on the offensive

We’re in the middle of a lull on the women’s reservation issue, so we thought we’d post this piece from the Times of India to remind us about Sonia Gandhi’s game-changing leadership:

Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is not content just to be in power. This is clearly a resurgent party setting agendas, taking risks, pushing for big change. Whether it is loan waiver for farmers, NREGS, Rahul Gandhi working the youth or, now, the Women’s Bill, the Congress is wresting the initiative from both the Right and the Left. In the process, the party is widening its base, luring into the mainstream whole new constituencies. Will this guarantee 300-plus LS seats, so Rahul Gandhi can be king when he becomes PM?

When , in the President’s address just 20 days ago, Pratibha Patil made a pointed reference to the government’s commitment to an early passage of the women’s reservation bill and urged all MPs to pay “special attention to this critical proposal” , members took it as just another filigree of nice sounding words that usually embellish the ceremonial presidential drone. To be fair, neither did the capital’s “astute” political observers sit up in excitement.

In fact, even when the Union cabinet cleared the bill on February 26, just one newspaper (The Times of India) took it seriously, thinking perhaps the time had come for the passage of this game-changer of a legislation , given the composition of Parliament. Still, most, including our MPs, were cynical – why would anyone pull out the pin of this political grenade? The law would be a kind of Russian roulette with no MP knowing whose seat would be reserved for women. It was, therefore, bound to be deeply unpopular with the army of male MPs. Why would anyone risk it? For 14 long years, the bill had been on the back-burner precisely for this reason, and politicians reckoned that’s where it would remain even now.

But, as it turned out, one politician was willing to risk it all: Sonia Gandhi, who was not even in the know when the cabinet cleared the bill, suddenly pitched her entire weight behind it. It was partly her conviction in women’s political empowerment, and partly her canny political sense which saw an opportunity to create a huge constituency for the Congress out of virtually thin air. Messrs Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav would, of course, be gnashing their teeth, and the going could get rougher for UPA 2, but Sonia was playing for the support of the mass of women and, therefore, stakes that were not only bigger but more durable.

Many Congress MPs, too, were caught offguard. With the boss indicating a quiet determination to see through the bill, and mouthing non-negotiable sentiments – the women’s bill, she said, was her late husband Rajiv Gandhi’s “unfulfilled” agenda – the realisation began to dawn that there was no going back.

The BJP and the Left parties, who have also been votaries of this politically-correct measure, were also left with no negotiating space. In the event, all of them started to outspeak each other about their commitment to women’s empowerment, never mind that all these years they have been niggardly about giving election tickets to women politicians.

Yet again, the Congress – Sonia Gandhi, really – was setting the political agenda, and everyone else was left reacting to it, either in opposition or in support. Yet again, the Congress was seen to be steadily adding building blocks to its support base. It started with the farmers and ‘aam admi’ with a series of empowering measures, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), farm debt waiver and the Right to Information Act.

And just as runaway prices were threatening to eat into her ‘aam admi’ plank, Sonia had played another trump card. In fact, Congress veterans who have been comparing her with her political teacher Indira Gandhi for some time now, were wondering this week if the student was not doing better than the master. Not surprisingly, the high-risk gamble has been interpreted by many as the Congress Party’s preparation for a mid-term poll. Party insiders too were not discounting the possibility. “If the government falls for some reason, we will go to the people and come back with bigger support,” said a leader.

Well, mid-term polls are not on the cards yet. Still, the Rajya Sabha standoff has brought to light a certain disconnect – rather, a difference of objectives – between Sonia Gandhi’s Congress and the UPA government. The government’s retreat on the first day in the Rajya Sabha showed its unwillingness to push the envelope too far and risk its existence.

But Sonia’s instinct said something else. As she told a television interviewer, she is aware of the “huge risk” in pushing through the bill. Even so, she was eager to take the risk and, in fact, speaks about it, if only to amplify her message – that she was staking her all to bring empowerment to women. Even as she spoke about the “huge risk”, you could almost hear a distant applause.

The week’s drama brought out another aspect of the unfolding political script. Sonia Gandhi was no longer doggedly determined to remain in the shadows, allowing her chosen Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to be the face of UPA 2. In fact, within minutes of the bill’s passage in the upper house, she gave short interviews to three television channels – an absolute rarity – to drive home the point that it was she who was the moving spirit behind the legislation. Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh, after making a speech which skipped a mention of Sonia Gandhi’s role, retreated into the background. It would be silly to miss the political significance of this. Many wondered whether Rahul Gandhi’s period of apprenticeship was about to get over.

It’s not that the risks that Sonia spoke of are imaginary. First, the OBC anger runs deep. JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav put it plainly when he said the bill “will finish us all.” This paranoia, drummed up by the Yadav troika, can distance the OBC vote further from the Congress. Second, there is a sharp Muslim reaction too. This rises largely from an anticipated backlash of the Muslim orthodoxy, which would resist attempts by Muslim women to come into public life. While the OBC vote was never with the Congress, the Muslims were warming up to the party.

Sonia Gandhi will also have to contend with the resentment of male members of the Lok Sabha who make up nearly 90 per cent of the House. The disquiet among Congress MPs is palpable. Will it have an organisational impact? Sonia probably doesn’t discount the possibility, but reckons if the Congress structure is rocked by the measure, so will be that of the BJP, neutralising the disadvantage.

Clearly, none of these has deterred the Congress boss from pursuing what she calls the “larger picture.” She has shown she has the stomach for a fight, even if there is a risk of the move re-igniting OBC politics and refurbishing the credentials of Mulayam and Lalu. This fight with the Yadav duo was, in any case, inevitable, given that the Congress now competes with Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party and Lalu’s RJD in UP and Bihar. As for risking the Muslim vote, Sonia may be banking on Muslims having no real choice other than the Congress at the national level, and an assessment that the orthodoxy’s grip over the community is over-stated . She also knows there is no possibility of a government in this Lok Sabha minus the Congress with its block of 208 MPs. And with the BJP still in disarray, it is unlikely to go in for a fight with the Congress so soon after last year’s mauling.

In her comments after the Rajya Sabha passed the bill on Tuesday, Sonia Gandhi did regret that the Yadavs have parted ways, but was matter of fact about it. While acknowledging the “huge risks” , she said, “We have taken risks before” , indicating that she wishes to set down a definite political agenda that distinguishes the Congress from the humdrum governance-as-usual political parties.

Suddenly with the women’s bill, politics has become a turning wicket.

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