Evaluating Sonia, the black box leader

Should Sonia Gandhi, ruler of the Congress party, be congratulated for finishing 15 years in Indian politics? It is not a sign of expertise if an heir becomes king. So why should it be different with her?

What does her political record look like? She formally assumed power in April 1998, but a year earlier (March 31, 1997 to be precise), the Congress party under her leadership (or the formal head Sitaram Kesri?) had withdrawn support to the United Front government. As the table shows, the Congress obtained the same seats as 1996, but 3 percentage points less votes than the P.V. Narasimha Rao 1996 election. The next year, after a full 18 months in power, Sonia's Congress obtained the lowest seats ever, 114, but kept its vote share equal to the 1996 level.

The same story continues for the next two elections. In 2009, the vote share remained just a notch below the 1996 level, even though the Congress won 206 seats. Note that vote share is an important indicator of a political party's popularity; the seat share an important indicator of coalition politics. Note also the joint vote share of the Congress and the BJP was the lowest in the coalition-era world, post 1984. Thus whatever the causes, it was not Sonia's or the Congress popularity that led to its outsized win in 2009.

After the 2009 election, it was quite apparent that Sonia and the party were targeting 272 seats on their own. Given that the vote share had stayed broadly constant and below the 1996 level, this belief in the Congress's invincibility is not suggestive of political prowess. Thus, the bottom line is quite straightforward there is nothing in the record to suggest that Sonia has been a successful politician except (and this is an important but), the vital fact that she is the glue that keeps the Congress together.

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