From Sonia Gandhi to Modi, how 'outsider' can become insider in Delhi Sultanate

Kishwar Desai
Kishwar DesaiNov 27, 2015 | 18:32

From Sonia Gandhi to Modi, how 'outsider' can become insider in Delhi Sultanate

Whilst it would be a political anathema to compare Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi, the reality is that both started as outsiders to the Delhi Sultanate. They might have other strikingly apparent advantages, but how they have handled, or are handling, this key disadvantage, of being an outsider in Delhi politics, has made a big difference in their strategy, and positioning in public perception.


The interesting part is that while Sonia Gandhi has had the time to establish herself as an "insider", Narendra Modi is still finding his place - and the strategy of his opponents would be destabilise him, especially with the "intolerance" debate before he has had the time to negotiate the labyrinthine route to really capture the heart of Delhi.

For Narendra Modi, the fact to remember is that his real opponent is not Rahul Gandhi, or Nitish Kumar, but Sonia Gandhi, for whom the battle to maintain the relevance of the Congress remains a deeply personal war. Once she was an outsider like him, but she would not like him to get the same "insider" status, a tab that keeps national leaders relevant in India.

After facing an initial backlash, of dynastic politics, of being a foreigner, et al, Sonia Gandhi managed to develop, with the help of her savvy media managers, an image of a political Mother Theresa, not interested in power, because she thought it was poison. She worked hard on her public image as well: in came the simple sarees, the severe hairstyle, even the covered head.

If she was not familiar with the workings of Delhi, and how to get the soft left intellectuals on her side, she formed committees, forged alliances with past enemies, and showed a willingness to learn and to adapt. Slowly, those who attacked her for not ever having worked, for having had no previous interest in politics, etc, came onto her side.


Like Modi, she had been vilified, and so had a deep mistrust of the media. A constant worry among her coterie, which still exists, was the fear of the castle door being pulled shut. To her credit, she walked this fine line very well, giving very controlled interviews to only those whom she trusted. Her privacy still is guarded with the utmost concern.

Modi has also started off, very visibly, as an outsider to the Sultanate politics of Delhi.

He comes from a humble background, like Sonia Gandhi, both having dealt with menial tasks in their early years. But while in his case being the "chaiwallah" has added integrity to his astonishing rise, for Sonia Gandhi rarely is a reference made to her having worked as an "au pair"(a perfectly normal thing for foreign students earning their way through college in Europe) because that points to her foreign origin.

Neither of them have the advantage of a good college or university education. But both of them, when they entered their national political career struggled with an image makeover, and have had difficulty in getting their party to accept them.

Language has been another learning issue: Sonia Gandhi still struggles with her Hindi accent, while Narendra Modi is polishing his English.


And they both carry baggage from the past.

But there are important distinctions as well. If around Sonia Gandhi is an image of self sacrifice, Modi has been presented as the strong powerful leader. He has trained himself to become a superb orator, and relies on his own intelligence to create ideas for taking the country forward. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, relies on a small trusted bunch of well wishers within the party to write her speeches and guide her forward.

But while Sonia Gandhi has had the time to teach her party to "tolerate" her "Outsider" status (and after many misgivings, internal splits and debate), and the country has also learnt to accept and appreciate her, Modi has not yet had the time to establish his "insider" status, with strategic opinion makers, or take their suggestions, visibly, on board.

But the question is why should he wait? He could, for instance, immediately establish a national integration committee, led by Aamir Khan, accept their ideas, and snatch the debate back from "intolerance" to development.

He should also head-hunt for someone who will, full time (like Sonia Gandhi did for Manmohan Singh while he was PM) stitch up alliances for the BJP. If he wants to continue as a strong political leader, he must carry everyone with him: and that includes the all powerful Lutyens' Delhi, and the minorities.

The present debate on "intolerance" in India, is a welcome catharsis, and should take place. But at the same time, Modi could easily and quickly negotiate his way to the "insider" status by reaching out to his critics.

Last updated: November 27, 2015 | 20:18
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