The absence of ‘jugaad’

The first time I met Sonia Gandhi was soon after she became Congress president – at a dinner at Nasik hosted by Sharad Pawar who was then sill part of the Congress. The party had swept more than 40 of the 48 seats to the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra and Pawar had just been made leader of the opposition. Some of us descended on Sonia, full of curiosity. She was startled t0 face a battery of questioning women journalists of all ages and speaking all languages and she ducked behind the ample persona of Najma Heptullah, then deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and also still with the Congress.

What charmed Sonia’s supporters and cynics alike was her answer to our query: what do you attribute your success at the Lok Sabha elections to?

She peeped out from behind Heptullah and rolling her Rs said, “It is not my success. The Congress has been ruled by better persons than me by a whole lot of leaders who have made great contribution to the party and the nation. I am only one in a long line of them. I still have a lot to learn from the more experienced leaders in my party.”

She was less shy the second time we met her in Bombay – at a lunch hosted by then Bombay Congress president Murli Deora but still avowing that she had a lot to learn from those who had put more years in the party than she had as yet.

I can scarcely believe that Sonia Gandhi has now completed 15 years straight as Congress president and seems to be the party’s only hope every which way, notwithstanding the elevation of her son Rahul Gandhi recently to the post of party vice president.

I attended one of her recent rallies in Gujarat and recall one senior journalist comment on the electrified crowds as she climbed the dais, “What will the Congress do without her? The others are all so useless, good for nothings!”

I wondered then what Sonia might have to say at that moment about the stalwarts in her party who had spent long years on the campaign trail, in party and government and yet could not be depended upon to even win their own elections by themselves.

Sharad Pawar recently expressed his deep regrets that he had ever raised the issue of her foreign origin and split the Congress on those grounds. While, I thought, that apart from the recent rather astonishing phenomenon of his spokespersons, earlier highly critical of the Gandhi parivar, now avowing the stellar qualities in Sonia Gandhi, might be some cosying up to the Congress president in the interest of his own offspring’s future, I am now realising the profundity of an earlier statement that Pawar had made to me almost reluctantly and in the passing: despite splitting from the Congress on the grounds of Sonia’s orgins, he had had to seek a tie-up with the Congress almost immediately thereafter because he realised that the Nehru-Gandhis held 20% of all votes polled at any election at any given time. “These are dalits and Muslims. They will vote for the Gandhis no matter what. So the Congress has to work for only another 30%. All the rest of us have to work from scratch, upwards from zero. So my task is easier if my party allies with the Congress.”

Years later at the December 2012 Gujarat elections, I saw the attraction at least one of these groups might have for the Nehru-Gandhis. Sonia’s rally was set for 11am but she did not turn up on the grounds before 1pm. Some of the front rows were occupied by Muslims and they were frantic because it was time for their namaaz. But when they had to choose, they decided to sit on, not wanting to get up for their prayers as they would lose their vantage seats in the front rows – shaking her hands after the rally, as she went past the barricade, was worth missing one namaaz for and that’s precisely what they did, bringing forth that comment from the Delhi veteran.

I wonder what it is about Sonia Gandhi that drew the Congress to her and not the other Gandhi bahu – Maneka, who was certainly more ambitious than her sister-in-law but could never quite make the cut. What surprises me is that Sonia has surpassed not just her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s record, but also that of her veteran mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, proving somehow more compassionate towards the deprived classes and with more staying power than any of the others before her, even highly tolerant of the abuse heaped upon her by her opponents.

But I can begin to guess from something a Youth Congress functionary once told me: “She sticks by the rules. And so she gives us all a future.”

When I asked him to explain he said, “Our party is famed for its jugaad. Soniaji does not understand the meaning of jugaad. So if one of us is more than 35 years of age, she absolutely forbids that he be made youth congress president. That opens the doors for the rest of us, the younger lot, and so no one ever wants to see her exit the party post. Even Rajivji woud give in to some jugaad. Perhaps even Rahul. But never our party president.”

Like bribery and corruption, jugaad is a great luxury in the Indian scheme of things. It’s just as well then that there is no equivalent of the word in the English or any other western language!

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