Sonia Gandhi spoke with clarity and conviction when she addressed the Congress parliamentary party late on Tuesday evening. There were two ways to respond to the campaign her political opponents had mounted against her becoming prime minister. The first would have been to up the ante and disdain to even acknowledge it. Given the political strength of her party, she could easily have chosen that option and steamrollered her way through with the support of her MPs and allies. Such a recourse may have brought her the top political post of the country but it would have also provided the BJP and its NDA allies a heavy duty handle to use against her as long as she was in power.
By choosing to “humbly decline” to take up the prime minister’s post, she has played a masterstroke. For one, it allows her to assume the high moral ground and signal that she was by no means enamoured of power for its own sake, but power for the principles she believes in. She has thus neatly disarmed her political opponents of the one weapon they had hoped to use against her. The BJP and those of its allies who supported this petty-minded campaign — there are some honourable exceptions — have emerged from the affair much diminished. The BJP in particular has shown itself as a party that could be swayed by the impetuous gestures and words of a few junior leaders and appear more than willing to trade its constitutional responsibility and democratic commitments for a sake of a few moments of xenophobic muscle-flexing. In the process, it has just provided Sonia Gandhi with an aura she may never have had as a prime minister in the difficult circumstances of running a messy coalition. Their move may, in fact, have made it that much easier for her to assume this very post the next time around.
While Sonia Gandhi’s gesture was marked by grace and maturity, the same cannot be said for her fellow MPs, each of whom tried to outdo the other in an unredeeming display of servility. They begged, pleaded, cajoled and sobbed that she stay on and lead them, they breathed fire and brimstone against her political opponents — the scene was vintage Congress sycophancy, in the Indira-is-India-and-Indira-India manner. Sonia Gandhi let it be known in no uncertain terms that she will not review her decision. They should now respond positively to her request that they accept it and move on. Then, perhaps, the country can also move on and get back to normalcy. Something it badly needs to do.