Sonia Gandhi’s concern for the poor and the marginalised strikes me as the first thing about her. Her concern is not artificial or superficial and this has led her to take many risks in her political career. She has always stood firmly for justice. It was only because of her personality and commitment that people like us who were not Congress members became associated with the National Advisory Council (NAC). Her second wonderful quality is that she listens to criticism. She believes in the freedom of expression. This reflects her democratic personality. She is constantly willing to learn despite so much pressure and scrutiny, and works towards involving more and more people. She herself initiated drafting the National Common Minimum Programme and stressed on the process of a larger social change. One thing here is worth mentioning; she treats all people equally, does not discriminate. She is an extremely warm personality. Thus, her personality leaves a distinct imprint on one’s mind. Sonia Gandhi should also be given the credit for bringing issues related to the poor and the deprived to the mainstream political discourse of the country.
Her commitment to the cause of poor and deprived is the key to an evaluation of the political legacy of Sonia Gandhi. It is reflected in her seminal contribution to getting rights-based legislations enacted. It was one of her most significant contributions to development politics in India. In this reference, I want to mention two legislations which are watershed for social sector legislation in 2005: RTI And NREGA. These marked one of the most important shifts towards participatory democratic development and governance in post-Independence India. Their passage dominated the discourse on governance and entitlements for the poor, and it is to be noted that they were passed after rigorous debate and discussion, inside and outside Parliament. The opposition from centres of power to this legitimate demand for a small share of the GDP for the poor was disproportionately high. Criticism and ridicule from neoliberal economists haunted this legislation. Even though she was tentative about fiscal arguments, some crucial recommendations about the MGNREGA were finally incorporated largely due to her support. These are examples of how pro-poor work can be done by constantly exerting pressure and keeping an eye on the system. These were followed by the enactment of many rights-based laws seeking to address basic needs of the marginalised.
You could argue, fight or disagree on every single point. And all this was possible because of Sonia Gandhi. Many acts would never have been passed in form and substance, had Sonia Gandhi not put her political weight and influence behind them as head of the UPA and of NAC: Forest Rights Act, Right to Education Act, National Food Security Act, the amended Land Acquisition Act, Domestic Violence Act, Street Vendors Act, Social Security Act, the amended SC/ST Atrocities Act. These acts played a significant role. People felt that they can also take part in the process of making a law which they have been fighting for. Before a law was made or passed, a phase of discussions and arguments used to continue for a long time, during which each and every aspect of the issue was discussed. It was a political decision and Sonia Gandhi was in charge of this. This placed the citizen and the beneficiary at the centre of decision-making. This was a paradigm shift in development and governance.
When I look at Sonia Gandhi’s long journey as the president of the Congress, she comes across as a person of illus-trious repute. Besides reviving the party, she quietly brought about many important changes which will be referred to for a long time.
I feel Sonia Gandhi should feel a sense of satisfaction for her fundamental role in establishing this path-breaking legislative paradigm. I feel it requires immense strength of purpose and conviction to push social sector issues and the real concerns of the marginalised into the mainstream of India’s decision-making platforms, and Sonia Gandhi stood the test. It’s not that something can be absolutely flawless. Our disagreements and dissents were there and are still there but her role was extremely helpful.
Whether supportive or critical, this was participatory democratic governance at its best. We know even if many stalwarts in her party were not enthused, people in India’s marginalised majorities understand how these laws have changed their lives. And that’s why during UPA 2, when the government started moving away from these focus areas, there was discontent among the masses. I know Sonia Gandhi was able to feel that, but people in the government could not, or they were not concerned about this.
All this started after the election results of 2004. It was a surprise for many of us. It was clear that the slogan of Shining India did not apply to half of the country’s population. These wishes and questions of the people found place in the NCMP formulated by the UPA.
The second surprise was that the leader of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, decided not to become the Prime Minister. She became chairperson of a newly created body called the National Advisory Council, formed to advise the Prime Minister and the government on the implementation of the promises in the NCMP. That Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of a ruling alliance, headed an advisory body rather than the government was a quirk of history. Its mandate to confine itself to social sector promises and initiatives was a significant, deliberate decision. She selected an eclectic group of members in NAC, displaying political maturity and breaking new ground.
The final surprise was that NAC members were drawn from a cross-section of civil society and policy experts without party affiliations. NAC, headed by her, gave these issues a unique space. It enabled the transformation of political commitments to citizens into working frameworks of law and policy. The NCMP played a useful role when Sonia Gandhi used this declaration of intent as justification to overcome resistance in the government and party.
However, we had been holding discussions on many of the issues with Sonia Gandhi from the time when she was leader of the Opposition. It was easy to meet her and another positive point was that she used to listen to us very carefully. She used to try to understand the finer details of every issue. At that time, she supported the Right to Information movement and understood its basic point: that through this, the poor will get a greater control over the government. Sonia Gandhi’s determined efforts pulled together the pro-poor elements in her party and the government along with the strong political support of the Left from outside. This created a wide spectrum of support.
When the offer to join NAC came to me, I had doubts if I would get the freedom of expression and dissent. I had only one condition that there should be no restriction on this freedom of mine. My wish was respected right till the end. As president of NAC, Sonia Gandhi kept giving space to various disagreements, questions and concerns and this is something very important. This is a fast fading quality in today’s politics which Sonia Gandhi has been practising right from the beginning. Today the ruling party is not willing to hear any dissenting voice. In such a scenario, Sonia Gandhi’s presence is pivotal and significant.
The way Sonia Gandhi kept her focus on the marginalised people’s access to constitutional guarantees is remarkable. Sonia Gandhi’s contribution is an important part of history and legacy when India’s constitutional democracy began to address inequality and concentration of power.
As told to Bhasha Singh