The ascent of the ordinary
  tarun I. Teipal

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IN modern sport they have a phrase for it. It’s called being ‘in the zone’. Once or twice in a career a gifted player arrives at a place inside his head where he can do no wrong. Intuition, judgement, hand-eye coordination – the very environment – fall into eloquent accord. Bad plays turn out good; luck takes up residence in the hip pocket; impossible moves become possible. The same player whose career was a question mark – V.V.S. Laxman on 13 March 2001 at Eden Gardens – becomes an exemplar, the definition of a kind of genius.

Sonia Maino Gandhi – like Laxman stroking his way to an inconceivable 281 – has all of this year been playing the innings of her life. She began 2004 a journeyman politician, capable of a few things, incapable of much; less expected to deliver a miracle, more likely to preside over a debacle. Her chief perceived virtue was a surname; her handicaps legion. As in the worst kind of army, even those who followed her into battle were convinced she would be bested. And the battle she faced was by any standards daunting: a swaggeringly confident power-pumped ruling party, nimble in knotting alliances, capable of speaking in many voices, not handicapped by a need to adhere to any Queensberry rules, led it believed by a leader whose charismatic pull was not second to that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

In sporting parlance, again, they would have said: no contest. And it is precisely what Indian media – its antennae snarled by psephologists and pret and stock markets and Johnny Walker pundits – it is precisely what the urban master-class pronounced. In the end they did the lady in 10 Janpath a great favour, taking away from her the burden of victory, freeing her to strike forth as she chose: only those who have been there know what a liberating thing it is to be a complete underdog.

She began 2004 expected to achieve nothing; she ends it possessed of a stature that a former prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, might well envy. It is not tainted by a quest for personal power; it is not tainted by communalism; it is not tainted – so far – by the distressing penchant for saying one thing and doing another.



Exactly twenty years ago Sonia’s husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was ending the year similarly catapulted in stature. He had begun that year, 1984, as a nice – if callow – son of the prime minister. After a tumultuous year for the country – Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Bhopal – the people had gifted him a historic mandate as he brought in them a surge of new hope. Everyone hoped he would turn us away from the growing cycle of divisive violence; a new dawn would break, with the reassurance of old decencies and the promise of modern ways. They placed in him more faith than they had in any other prime minister before.

The true worth of that moment is still being debated. History will take some more time to make its reckoning. In that light it is impossible to so early assess the meaning of 2004, to know if it will prove a watershed year in the political processes and directions of India. But it is not impossible to assess Sonia Gandhi’s place in it. If the year has lasting meaning, she will without doubt be its centrepiece.

What it’s also possible to say is that compared to Rajiv, her achievement – though a mere third in terms of seats – is far greater. The Nehru-Gandhi was born to power, he had merely to stretch out his hand to receive it. In the life, education and ambition of the Italian girl there was nothing to prepare her for what has become her destiny.

Try to think of a parallel. A white woman in a brown land. Not Bhutan, not Nepal, not Sri Lanka. Not a land with finite borders and a finite people. But a land with infinite history, infinite culture, infinite numbers. A land of a thousand million people. A land with recent baggage of glorious anti-colonial struggle; a land continually rediscovering pride in its infinite innate worth. In such a land try and think of a white woman discovering an indigenous voice and finding in tens of millions an echo of it.

Try and find a parallel to Sonia Gandhi’s triumph which unfurled breathlessly on our television screens this May. Perhaps there is none.

Sonia Gandhi, many will wager, is not extraordinary. But what she pulled off this year is more than extraordinary. It is miraculous. It is a triumph of many things. It tells us many things. About ourselves. About her. About the nature of endeavour.



About ourselves, on the downside, it tells us we are a country of followers: believers in dynasties, feudalisms, the divine rights of rulers. We need a guiding hand; we need our destinies secure in the caress of paramount leaders.

On the flip side, the plus side, it tells us we are a people of the greatest open embrace. Blessed with great cultural securities, we are not easily threatened. We are never subsumed; we are never coopted. In our body run a thousand cultural, linguistic and racial strains, acquired over millennia, each one making us more immune to the narrow fundamentalisms that have begun to challenge the world.

The town-criers, the masters of inquisition, may have it wrong.

It is not we who have been coopted by Sonia.

It is we who have coopted her. Made her one of us.

She arrived here a pretty Italian girl; we have made her a stoic Indian woman. She arrived here with a European notion of the good life; we have imbued her with the Oriental sense of a deeper purpose. She put her blood and sweat out on the line, and in totally unexpected fashion we gave her a mandate.

The fact is between leaders and followers there is little colour, creed, performa. There is hope, respect, belief and love. Sonia has been already tested on some of these; and she will be much more in the coming years.



We will now, it seems, never know what kind of prime minister and administrator she might have turned out. What we may get a chance to know is what kind of nation-builder she can be. And what we already know is that she has paid her dues. Democratic politics is always full of remarkable journeys. Hers could well be among the most remarkable of them all. More remarkable than those of Rajiv, Sanjay, Indira, Jawaharlal and Motilal; more remarkable than anything that will happen to Rahul and Priyanka. They were all born unto their destinies. Hers has been clawed out in the face of incalculable odds. In the ascent to Everest she was allowed to start from the final camp – from the Nehru-Gandhi household – but her legs were then tied and weights attached to them.

The story is familiar. Sonia Maino meets, loves and marries Rajiv Gandhi in England and arrives in Delhi in the late sixties. Straight into the prime minister’s house – nearly forty years ago – whereto India’s satraps and chieftains lust forever to go. Loved of her mother-in-law, the redoubtable Indira Gandhi, she leads a life of happy domesticity amid the whirl of power politics and international visitors. She is good with menus, clothes, guests and, after the sudden death of young Sanjay Gandhi, lends a secretarial hand to her mother-in-law’s arsenal of concerns. Living in India’s most public family, she is a private presence – shadowy, retiring, elegant. Not accessible, not known, not arousing curiosity.

The most unlikely candidate in that household to commandeer mass goodwill or power.



The immense – immense – challenge of India comes visiting on the 31st of October 1984 as Indira Gandhi is peppered with bullets by her bodyguards, and dies cradled in Sonia’s arms. When her forty-year-old husband is anointed heir, she fights like a wildcat to protect the life she loves, of family intimacies and close friends. As her husband vaults into the public imagination, she remains who she has been – shadowy, retiring, elegant. There is the honeymoon of 414 Lok Sabha seats, the nightmare of Bofors, and the defeat of 1989. In failure, in adversity – as it always is – Rajiv Gandhi’s true education has finally begun. There is unanimity that when he returns to power he will be refined of the hype, the naiveté, the cronyism. He will finally be the complete politician and leader he is meant to be.

On the night of 21 May 1991, in the middle of a new general election, the phone at 10 Janpath rings just short of 11 p.m. The immense – immense – challenge of India has come visiting again. Sonia Gandhi’s wails fill the sprawling house. Hitherto the retainers have never heard a raised decibel. Someone is testing her almost unfairly.

The next eight years are a mysterious ballet of Sonia’s own anxieties and instincts, and the push and pull of Congress leaders desperate for the Nehru-Gandhi armour that gives them courage to do electoral battle. She maintains an uneasy peace with Narasimha Rao as he heads a Congress government even as leaders queue up at 10 Janpath to importune her to seize the steering wheel of the party and keep it from careening off the road. Ever correct, she holds her fire. Does not intervene in party affairs, does not push appointments and people. In the public eye, she is still who she was: shadowy, inscrutable, the sphinx.

No one. Simply no one expects her to do anything momentous, leave alone take over a creaking, careening Congress, slowly shearing off at the edges. Sonia heading the Congress is a conceit: it is not meant to be a reality. It is an idea that is meant to allow other ideas to come into play – such as the advent of Rahul and Priyanka: it is not meant to be a reality. No one believes she has the panoply of skills needed to lead an Indian political party – cunning, camaraderie, casteism, compromise, corruption, charisma.

She is an idea meant to allow other ideas to come into play.

She is not meant to become the idea herself.



The surreal coronation of Sitaram Kesari as Congress president, the howls for help from old party hands and loyalists – among them Arjun Singh, R.K. Dhawan, Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel, Suresh Pachauri, Digvijay Singh – and some indefinable impulse (to which she herself has alluded often) to rescue the fraying Nehruvian vision – the idea of India, liberal, secular, modern – all of it finally forces her hand.

She took over the party, an unlikely helmsman. Surrounded by sycophants, working everyday on her Hindi, trying hard to divine the byzantine code of a party of unparalleled size and disarray, she had her work fairly cut out, till someone decided to test her a little more. There was an unexpected rebellion in 1999 as Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised the verysame bogey her Sangh Parivar opponents had been waving: her foreign origins. This was a crippling blow, the one moment she wanted to throw in the towel, retreat into her shell of quiet aesthetics, genteel books, and family intimacies. Once again the Congress trenches vomited out importuners and pleaders – so relentlessly and apparently so sincerely that she was forced to reconsider.



In hindsight the revolt was good for her. She came back much stronger, her party now a poodle on a leash. But fixing the party was only one part of her challenge. The mighty one was to take on the shouting armies of the Sangh Parivar who were buoyed by power and convinced they could undo her in a hundred ways from her foreign origins to her accented Hindi to her inability to be the backslapping politician who rules India’s voteways. For the last three years a torrent of calumny was thrown her way; there were continual attempts to humiliate her for her language, her origins, her lack of political savvy, her ostensible avarice and dynastic politics.

Enough trash to have despaired the most stout.

Clearly she had to dig deep within herself to stand her ground. Clearly some memory of lessons learnt in the shadows of Indira and Rajiv – in the very womb of pulsing power – stirred. Most important of all – and it is clear in her every action – she learnt to go beyond the line of fear. Fear of insult, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of persecution. All these had stared her in the face in the last five years. There had been triumphs – states won – and there had been failures – states lost; there had been resolutions – to go it alone; to adopt moral and legal funding – and there had been compromises – with Laloo and Mulayam and the stigmatized candidates of the anti-Sikh riots. But clearly there had been less and less fear.

And it is this – less and less fear – that finally brought her to the summit of Everest.



It is when she learnt the art of the open embrace, when she became unafraid of the open embrace – with other parties, with people – that the world began to shift. The most valuable lesson she remembered was that of her mother-in-law. Indira Gandhi was always clear. Don’t worry about the 150 chatterers of Delhi. When you want what you want, go to the people. Only they can give it to you, not those who talk in Delhi.

Sonia did just that. She turned her back on the earners and the critics and with a display of unsuspected energy and resolve – even before the election bugles had been blown – sailed into the arms of the people, from western Uttar Pradesh to every nook and corner of the subcontinent.

She smiled, she waved, she shook hands, she hugged, and miraculously a moribund Congress – battered into a defeatist mindset by the NDA’s bellowing tellytalkers – began to find its feet. Even so observers wondered why the rest of the party was doing so little, and she so much. The abiding and greatest irony of the 14th general elections will remain that the most tireless warrior for the cause of Indian secularism and liberalism was the one they kept denouncing as a foreigner.

Though the story of the general elections of 2004 is Sonia Gandhi, the story of Sonia Gandhi’s true triumph actually begins after the victory at the hustings.

The sweet thing about history is how often it turns on the ordinary gesture. The writing of an article. The making of a speech. Ejection from a train. Incarceration in an island prison. An election. A resignation. The acceptance of a post.

The rejection of a post.

Ernest Hemingway – with his penchant for the bon mot – once said, In life it doesn’t matter where you come from; all that matters is where you go. It is a mantra all strugglers hold close as they soldier against the fiends of privilege and prejudice. It is a variant on the principle of you are what you do. It lays down that the final playing field of men should have no fences of race, caste, colour, creed.

It is the utopia against which we mostly fail. And occasionally succeed. Sonia Gandhi may have come from Orbassano in Italy – or wherever Subramaniam Swamy thinks she actually comes from – but where she has gone is to the top of the Indian political heap. Having held together a Congress that was beginning to come apart like an ungummed book; having survived enough insults to have flayed a rhino’s skin; having won an election in which no one gave her a ghost of a chance; having got the assent of every secular party to her candidature; having arrived where nothing more stood between her and the post of the prime minister; having got where every Indian politician would die to go, she put herself in between.



Her partymen made much theatre trying to remove her from the way so she could wear the crown. In time-honoured party tradition the high-tent of sycophancy went up swiftly and the circus was unleashed. Mawkish speeches were made, guns pulled, trees climbed, roads slept on, tears shed. But she stood her ground.

Orchestrated or unorchestrated, it is now universally recognized as a masterstroke.

Having already gone from ordinary to extraordinary in the course of a long election, she had now in one unexpected act become historic.

Sushma Swaraj could keep her hair. Uma Bharati her bile. Govindacharya, his nasal harangues. Venkaiah Naidu, his doggerel. L.K. Advani, the yatras. Vaipayee, his dithering. Manmohan Singh, the crown. Congress, the power.

And she?

And she a moral lustre not seen in Indian political life for a long time.



Even at end of year speculation has not settled on why she did not seize the laurel. Many say she never intended to. But then why the charade? The unanimous election by the Congress Parliamentary Party. The meetings with the allies. The letters of support from them. The tryst with the President. Was it only to prove the point (and who can fault that, given the history of abuse directed at her) that she could win it, have it for the taking, and then turn it down? Others feel the gathering hysteria of Sushma-Uma-Govindacharya and suchlike unnerved her, made her fear she would risk losing the battle even in the moment of having won it. One school spoke of security threats, and her children’s apprehensions. And another – issuing from the ever-cranking mills of the Hindu rightwing – declared that the President had warned her there was legal trouble in store if she chose to become the prime minister. Papers published it as the gospel, and Rashtrapati Bhawan was forced to issue a denial.

Even if all the above reasons were in play, it must have been a monumentally difficult decision. Anyone who skirts the fringes of power is aware of its immense seductions. None can resist its ride. Those who don’t have it, crave it intemperately; those who have it, are terrified of losing it. This fear – of losing it – is what made Atal Behari Vajpayee a smaller man than he is. In his election rallies he attacked his opponents for possessing satta ka lobh (lust for power), but failed the test each time the same question was posed of him. He allowed his government to mercilessly destroy Tehelka even though he knew we were clean and only doing our job. He found a few words during the carnage of Gujarat, but could find neither his conscience nor the will to act.

You are what you do. Not what you say. Not what you mean.



Gujarat could have made Vajpayee great, levitated him beyond his peers. But it left him a small man. Indians tend to believe morality is a slippery eel that can assume any shape and wriggle past anything. We also tend to feel that if things are left alone they will sort themselves out. But great leadership is about the act of moral faith. About imposing a superior will upon the dross of the everyday. It is about lifting the levels of public discourse and conduct so we are all forced to become more than what we are.

But too many governments in too many decades have worked at making us less than who we are.

Gujarat could have made Vajpayee great. By the ordinary act. Of a resignation.

Sonia has been made great by an ordinary act. Of a rejection.

She managed to somehow look through the fog of power to see that her ascension could create one more fissure in a land increasingly disfigured by cuts and slashes. She could see what she could achieve by becoming the prime minister. But miraculously she also saw how much more she could pull off by not becoming the prime minister.

She saw the moral answer buried in the riddle of power.

He has most power who craves no power.

In this great turnaround year what she has done is to remind us once again of the immense potency of the moral act. Make no mistake, morality is still the greatest strategy in politics and public life. The very smart boys of the political backrooms – crunching numbers, cutting deals – imagine that the winning of votes and public approval is just a matter of computers, money, hype, and tactics. It is not.

Leadership is first and last a moral act. Its morality is its unstoppable strategy.

It is why Indians venerate the rishi over the rajan.

It is why the greatest Indian of them all never held a formal post.

Often Sonia says that she looks to deliver the vision of Indira and Rajiv. That is where she may be wrong. The vision that she has to work to deliver is still that of Jawaharlal, in every way leagues ahead of those who have followed.

For Jawaharlal, and his mentor Mohandas, every public act was a moral one.

And it is only intuitive knowledge of this that has brought Sonia so far.



No matter her reasons for doing so, Sonia managed to achieve many things by refusing to become prime minister. She completely defanged a divisive and inflammatory issue – a foreign-born as prime minister – and put a poultice on every abraded emotion. She placed a fine man in the prime ministerial chair: for Indians there can only be great pride in knowing that the man at the helm of the nation is utterly honest and efficient. And she has re-established the distinction – after decades – between the head of the party and the head of the government. It ought to benefit both. There are those who carp that the arrangement works best when the prime minister is stronger than the party chief but to be fair there is no evidence yet to back such a claim.

The BJP should worry. She has shown them up in poor light. Their invective, their posturing, their arrogance, their stance of the sullen loser. She has put the Congress in a very sweet place. In the warmth of her moral halo. The next time she goes out looking for votes it will be from an unassailable position: she who wanted power, but not for herself.



Six months after the election victory she is still in the zone, her instincts working beautifully. With success, with moral lustre, has come an increasing humility. Today she is willing to bend low to listen to anyone – look at her relations with her allies – because she has grown so tall. She is walking the tightrope of power with wisdom, giving her prime minister his full due, steering clear of an overt presence in government. Those in the know will tell you she is keeping an eagle eye on all that is happening, but that is to ensure her pack doesn’t begin to hunt each other.

In a way this is a triumph of the uncluttered mind. Stick to the fundamentals, recognize the line between right and wrong, don’t overcalculate, and things will be fine.

Keep it simple.

Do what is right and seemly, and it will be seen to be right and seemly.

Outstanding leaders are not terribly clever people.

Outstanding leaders have rock solid fundamentals.

The more moral the fundamentals are, the more magnetic is the appeal of the leader. Six months is too little to reach a conclusion but Sonia’s rare gesture, the advent of the good Dr Manmohan Singh, and the right noises about social justice, development and economic progress may well herald some return of morality to public life. She has also put the monkey on the backs of her partymen and her allies – even the viciously opposed Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. They are all now called to a higher order of conduct. They have to watch their pettiness; and also be aware that the voter – now possessed of a new gauge of assessment – will judge their excesses and tantrums harshly.

We may not yet reclaim a politics of decency, but at least there is a whiff of it in the air.



Look at Sonia these days. She glows, she smiles, she speaks with easy confidence. She not only won an impossible victory, but found immense grace in the moment of her triumph. She is a prime example of the transformative life, the ordinary life made extraordinary through the acceptance of challenge. If she stays the path she could end up catalyzing incredible things, unencumbered as she is by the baggage of caste, community, clan.

Many questions still persist.

Does she now have native instinct?

Of course she never will, but that only makes her work harder.

Does she mean well? Does she have fortitude? Can she lead her party? Do the people back her? Has she earned our respect?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Is she now an Indian?

As much as a foreign-born can ever be.

She is however ratified by the scriptures, which are clear. Action is all. You are what you do.

And she has been a good karmayogi. Her triumph is once again a reminder of the virtue of endeavour. The splendour of action. Better still, as the scriptures tell us, detached action. She gives evidence of that too. There is a zone of calm from where she operates (with her personal avengers, Priyanka and Rahul, close in her orbit). She is known to often admit that she knows her life is ever on the line. But the anxiety does not mark her conduct.



Will she be a great and visionary leader?

It’s way too early to tell. She still wears a tangled crown, power without power. But then you don’t have to be an elephant, you just have to be an exemplary mahout. And that she may well be, because she is a learner. From the NDA she has learnt the art of coalitions, and from others the art of campaigning, and the art of the open embrace. That odd exasperating trait of many great leaders – the art of enigma, which sates and teases followers in equal measure – she of course has a patent on.

Her critics say she is insecure and holds power close to herself; her supporters say Congress leaders would fall upon each other if she slackened the reins.

Her critics say she wants Rahul and Priyanka to inherit the earth; her supporters say it is Congress leaders who do not leave them alone, for the children are their next ticket to the people and power.

Her critics say a fawning Congress is thrusting greatness upon her; her supporters say she alone among the last generation of Nehru-Gandhis has gained it with her singular effort.

Her critics say basically she is very ordinary. That may well be. But what Sonia Gandhi has pulled off this year is more than extraordinary. It is a miracle. We can be sure even if she never does another thing of note ever, this year, 2004, will always belong to her, as will the unique space she has carved out for herself in the maelstrom of Indian politics and public life.