Cablegate: Congress Culture Defines Sonia Gandhi's Role
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
061316Z Apr 05
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 NEW DELHI 002602
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/06/2015
TAGS: PGOV PINR ECON IN
SUBJECT: CONGRESS CULTURE DEFINES SONIA GANDHI'S ROLE
Classified By: DCM Robert O. Blake, Jr. for Reasons 1.4 (B, D)
1.(C) Summary: Since the Congress-dominated government has been in power, there have been widespread allegations by the opposition BJP and media commentators that party President Sonia Gandhi has been pulling the strings of government. Our conversations with a wide variety of insiders suggest that her role is more muted and nuanced. She has deliberately attempted to preserve the image of being ""above the fray"" politically, taking maximum advantage of Congress culture, which prescribes that the party figurehead be surrounded by an ""inner coterie"" to provide advice, and shield the leader from criticism and dissent. The Gandhis remain coy as to which of their many advisors are ""in"" and which are ""out,"" leading to endless speculation, and large numbers of people claiming to be ""close to the Gandhi family."" Mrs. Gandhi also heads the National Advisory Council, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Steering Committee, and a committee that administers relations with the Left Front (LF). She restricts her role in these meetings to presiding as chair and utilizes senior Congress leaders to do the talking. Embassy contacts emphasize that Mrs. Gandhi prefers to wield power behind the scenes, relying on discrete back-channel communications with key figures in Congress and allied parties to address outstanding problems. While this elaborate system protects her from blame for GOI shortcomings, it also complicates honest assessments, as her handlers strictly control information flow and access. End Summary.
The Web Around Sonia
2. (C) For decades, Congress culture has had an ""inner coterie"" around the Gandhi family, to offer them advice and protect them from dissenting opinions and criticism. The family has been secretive about who belongs to the inner circle, which makes it difficult to define the current membership. Embassy contacts claim that this complex web assists and inhibits Mrs. Gandhi to wield power. While the BJP accuses Mrs. Gandhi of acting ""as a shadow Prime Minister,"" our contacts generally agree that she and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have defined their roles, with the PM acting as a corruption-free technocrat handling governance, who remains above the political fray, while Mrs. Gandhi concentrates on the constant give-and-take associated with running an enormous political party with tens of millions of members and a disparate coalition.
3. (C) Mrs. Gandhi's three principal advisors, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh, have served the Gandhi family for many years, and derive their power through proximity to her. Party insiders believe that Soni is on the ascendant and currently among those individuals that Mrs. Gandhi trusts the most. Ramesh is primarily viewed as a thinker and wordsmith, who drafts Mrs. Gandhi's speeches and helps shape her views. Insiders dismiss Ahmed Patel as an intellectual lightweight, known primarily for his skills as a political ""errand boy"" who gets things done behind the scenes for Mrs. Gandhi. His star has fallen after allegedly mismanaging recent assembly elections in Jharkhand and Bihar.
4. (C) Unlike the advisors, who tend to remain with the Gandhis over the long-term, individual politicians move in and out of Mrs. Gandhi's inner circle. At present, the three most prominent include HRD Minister Arjun Singh, Party General Secretary Digvijay Singh, and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. All three are extremely ambitious and would like to become Prime Minister. According to our sources, Arjun Singh's chances are fading, as he is viewed as too old and too overbearing. Sharad Pawar, once plagued by ill health, seems to have recovered and is considered one of the most senior and competent of the old Congress leadership. Digvijay Singh, the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, is highly regarded as one of the few senior Congress leaders with the ""common touch."" Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee occupy a separate orbit of super Ministers whose long-standing personal ties to the Gandhi family and seniority in Congress politics allow direct personal access to Mrs. Gandhi, and routine input on Congress decision making across a range of issues. Of these three, Mukherjee is clearly the most formidable -- and reportedly harbors the greatest hope of some day becoming Prime Minister.
Sonia and the NAC
5. (C) Although the National Advisory Council (NAC) has attracted considerable media attention, most agree that it is the least significant of the three bodies Mrs. Gandhi chairs, and is most notable for providing her with cabinet status. Sonia is said to be a strong backer of the Common Minimum Program (CMP), drafted by the Left parties and Congress after the 2004 electoral victory. She views the CMP as a useful tool that will keep the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) together. The UPA government established the NAC to ""interface with civil society in the implementation of the CMP."" Its functions are to:
--monitor implementation of the CMP;
--provide inputs for GOI policy formulation; and --support GOI legislative business.
6. (C) Mrs. Gandhi's role as NAC Chairman provides her with Cabinet rank and a ""secretariat"" with a complement of civil servants and staff that report directly to her, as well as office space and a travel budget. The NAC members consist of intellectuals, former civil servants, and academics, including a number of heavyweights from India's NGO community. NAC members are predominantly of a leftist ideological bent and maintain cordial relations with the Communists. Jairam Ramesh, who helped draft the CMP, is also a member, and has played an active role in the two or three meetings held since its creation. Members receive no compensation or government rank. Contacts tell us that while Mrs. Gandhi nominally chairs the sessions, she restricts her involvement to brief opening and closing statements.
7. (C) The NAC website provides access to papers drafted by the members, but it has not issued a policy document or played a significant role in policy formulation since its formation. Since the NAC has been largely moribund, some political observers theorize that Congress created it to provide Mrs. Gandhi with needed Cabinet rank and infrastructure, to help convince the Communists that it was serious about the CMP, to help burnish Mrs. Gandhi's image as a ""compassionate leader"" who cares about the poor, and to provide entre for NGOs in the policy process.
Sonia and the UPA
8. (C) There are three components that must be placated and balanced to keep the UPA government in power: Congress, the Communist parties, and the regional/caste parties. Sonia and the Congress leadership complain about Communist obstruction, but are convinced that these parties, although ideological, are not ""irresponsible."" In the eyes of Congress leaders, most Communists are ""pragmatic,"" projecting an image of looking after the poor and downtrodden, in order to mollify the party faithful, while not preventing government from functioning.
9. (C) While many in the Congress inner circle have some affinity with the Communists and work together with them on selected issues, they view the regional satraps of the UPA allies with disdain, and prefer to keep them at arm's length. The recent Congress fiasco in Bihar, for example, convinced many in Congress that Bihar-based politicos Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are ""loose cannons"" who cannot be trusted. Their disdain for these often rustic regional politicians has prevented Congress from properly managing the UPA coalition. Because of these engrained prejudices, Congress has been unable to focus on the BJP as its principal adversary, and instead has become mired in internecine squabbling.
10. (C) Mrs. Gandhi chairs the UPA Steering Committee, which is supposed to provide a forum for UPA members to work out their differences. It has met no more than six times in the almost 11 months since the UPA came to power. Since the Communists support the UPA from the outside, they are not members of this committee, and hold their own meetings with Sonia and the Congress leadership on a weekly basis. This suggests that the UPA Steering Committee is primarily intended to coordinate policy between Congress and the regional/caste parties. One of the most powerful regional parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) led by Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, also supports the UPA from outside and is not a member of the committee, while another, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) does not support the UPA.
11. (C) According to our contacts, Mrs. Gandhi plays a similar role in the Steering Committee meetings as she does in the NAC, sitting silently through meetings without participating and leaving substantive statements to Congress heavyweights. Congress Cabinet ministers participate in these meetings on an ad hoc basis according to the issues under discussion, and Sonia lets them present the party position. These include, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who does not restrict himself to defense issues but also addresses economic questions, Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, and Finance Minister Chidambaram, among others.
12. (C) Our contacts tell us that few tangible results have emerged from these meetings, which are held largely for public consumption and to demonstrate to the public that Congress is a responsible party interested in ""coalition maintenance."" In reality, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress leadership prefer to work most UPA management issues out of the public eye,"" relying on phone calls and personal visits that are not open to prying eyes and the media.
Congress and the Communists
13. (C) Several interlocutors claimed that the weekly meetings with the Communists, also attended by Mrs. Gandhi, are more important than the UPA Steering Committee meetings, as Congress has determined that it will put forward no significant economic initiative without first vetting it with the Communists, and attempting to gain their assent. In addition to formal meetings, Mrs. Gandhi calls Left Front leaders to her residence for ""breakfast"" on an ad hoc basis. The breakfasts take place only when Sonia and her advisors deem that there is an issue so pressing that it requires a conclave. Mrs. Gandhi expects the meetings to be private and the press is not invited. However, in some instances participants will brief journalists off the record about what transpired. Congress leaders also routinely call their Communist counterparts on the telephone to discuss a wide range of issues. It is not clear whether Mrs. Gandhi personally telephones the Communist leadership, or whether she leaves that to her subordinates.
14. (C) As one of the world's oldest and largest political parties, Congress has evolved an elaborate culture aimed at protecting the Gandhi dynasty. Mrs. Gandhi's inner circle carefully controls her access to information, and inoculates her from criticism, while her carefully scripted public appearances protect her from making gaffes or missteps. This has the advantage of preserving the ""sanctity"" of Mrs. Gandhi and the dynasty, but can also complicate her efforts to wield power. This system prevents Mrs. Gandhi from asserting herself and reduces her charisma, and makes her overly reliant on a selected group, which may not always have her or the party's best interests at heart. She appears more comfortable working with the often high-caste and well-educated Communists than with regional satraps of the state-based parties, which suggests that the bumpy Congress/UPA relationship is likely to continue.