NEW DELHI: It had been a brutal August for India’s Congress party: economic growth was wilting, the monsoon rains were failing and the opposition had it cornered on yet another corruption scandal.
In stepped Sonia Gandhi, the Congress chief, to revive the morale of the ruling party’s lawmakers, exhorting them at a meeting to “stand up and fight, fight with a sense of purpose and fight aggressively”.
It was a stunningly assertive speech from the normally temperate matriarch of a dynasty that has ruled India for most of its post-independence era.
And yet few at the gathering were aware that just a week earlier she had performed an even more dramatic about-face, agreeing to a raft of economic reforms that would be unveiled on Sept 13 and 14.
Gandhi has no official government post, but as Congress party president and torch-bearer of India’s widely revered first family, she has the last word on big policy issues: and for her, social welfare has always come before liberalising the economy.
However, officials and party leaders close to the secretive inner circle of Sonia Gandhi said she was persuaded of the need for urgent action to avert a repeat of the crisis that took India to the brink of bankruptcy in 1991.
“This time there was a very grim scenario,” said Rashid Kidwai, a Sonia Gandhi biographer who was given an account of the arguments made over weeks by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his new finance minister behind the closed doors of colonial-era government bungalows in New Delhi and even on a plane journey.
“It’s not that she wanted to go for all this, but it was made very clear to her that, if she didn’t, there would be far more dire consequences,” Kidwai said.
Sources said the trigger for the reform campaign in Asia’s third-largest economy came with the return of P. Chidambaram as finance minister on Aug 1.
An eloquent Harvard-educated technocrat with a track record as a reformer, he replaced Pranab Mukherjee, a left-of-centre Congress stalwart who had consistently warned Gandhi against radical reforms that could cost the party votes.
“Pranab was from the old school of Indian politics,” said a senior government official.
“The prime minister and the finance minister had to persuade Mrs Gandhi that good economics was good politics.”
Her acquiescence in the end led to this month’s “big bang Friday” when, a day after taking an axe to costly subsidies on diesel, the government announced that the retail market would be opened to foreign supermarket chains and the bar on foreign investment in both airlines and broadcasters would be lifted.
In sum, these were the most sweeping reforms since Singh took office in 2004 and - in the space of 48 hours - they dispelled the image of a prime minister who was losing his touch as India’s high-trajectory growth faltered.
A RELUCTANT REFORMER: However, insiders say Gandhi remains instinctively wary of economic liberalisation and trimming the budget deficit. For months, she had held out against cutting fuel subsidies that are aimed at the poor and the country’s rural majority, fearing the impact on the Congress party’s fortunes.
She only agreed when Singh and Chidambaram spelled out that new growth generated by reforms and improved investor sentiment would have a trickle-down effect and provide funds for welfare spending in time for elections due by mid-2014.
“They explained to Mrs Gandhi that social benefits for the poor will need deep pockets,” said a Congress party source.
More than 30 letters written by Gandhi to the prime minister and US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray her as passionate about social issues, and attached to protecting the poor.
That means the sudden burst of reforms could be cut short if Gandhi - who Forbes magazine ranks as the world’s sixth most powerful woman - sees no benefits for the rural poor on whom her party relies for votes. Indeed, party sources said she would now focus on passing a bill on universal food security in December, a populist plan that would cost billions of dollars at a time when her government is under intense pressure to rein in spending.
“She just wants enough budgetary resources available to finance her welfare schemes,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a prominent journalist and commentator who leans towards the opposition.
“She has never spoken about reforms. What she has done is make Congress think of reforms as a low priority and a political liability - she has ingrained that mindset in the party.” A request to interview Gandhi was declined.
PARAMOUNT POWER: Sonia Gandhi, 65, carries the authority of a political family that, after India won independence from Britain in 1947, drove a vision of democratic socialism to uplift the vast rural masses. With that came a mind-boggling range of controls that tied the economy down and kept it closed to global markets.
A turning point came in 1991 when a slump in exports following the collapse of the Soviet Union and a leap in oil import costs due to the Gulf war tipped the country into a balance of payments crisis.
Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, responded with shock treatment, devaluing the rupee by nearly 19 per cent. So determined was he to push this through, when the prime minister of the day got cold feet, he reportedly blamed the infamous inefficiency of India’s telephone system to pretend that he couldn’t contact the central bank in time.
His moves to prise open the economy set the stage for a long run of dazzling growth that peaked at 9.7 per cent in 2006/07.
Although Gandhi appointed Singh as prime minister when the Congress party returned to power eight years ago, she has a far more socialist mindset than the Oxford-educated economist who drove that first round of reforms.