The people of India got to see the real Sonia Gandhi, who was hiding behind a mask all these years, last week when she took umbrage at an expression used by senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K.Advani in the Lok Sabha and began orchestrating a loud protest from the Congress benches. The visuals of the ruckus, repeated ad nauseum by all television news channels through-out August 8, showed a haughty Sonia Gandhi, gesticulating angrily and egging on her MPs to stall the proceedings until the BJP leader withdrew the expression -"Illegitimate" - that he had used to describe the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government.

Referring to the Cash-for-Vote Scandal in the House in 2008 when the government stood accused of trying to bribe opposition MPs in order to survive a Trust Vote, Mr.Advani argued that a government which resorted to such tactics to stay on in office hardly enjoyed any legitimacy. The term used by him was neither vulgar nor unparliamentary. These are accusations that are routinely flung at opponents within democratic chambers and are part of the cut and thrust of debates in democracies across the world. Why Ms.Gandhi took offence at that remark is anybody's guess, but she certainly used the occasion to transform herself from being just a "Reader" to becoming 'The Leader"! Truly an Independence Day "gift" to the nation by the family that controls the Congress Party!

Although Sushilkumar Shinde has been appointed Leader of the Lok Sabha, it is obvious that the Congress President and the de facto head of the government does not have much confidence in him. As she goaded her MPs into action, Sonia's front bench activism got some Congress ministers and MPs so puffed up that some of them, who have remained largely voiceless within the party, swiftly sprang into action to stand by their leader. One such worthy was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a sudden display of bravado, Mr.Singh told the media that Mr.Advani's comment was "disgraceful".

With such crass sycophancy on display, Sonia decided to continue in her new role. In order to declare that her angry outburst on August 8 was not a one-off thing, Sonia played the Conductor yet again on the following day. This time she played "Leader, Leader" with much gusto and goaded her ministers and MPs to intervene, shout and respond to things said from the other side of the House. The moment a member of the Samajwadi Party raised the issue of reservations in promotions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes government employees, Sonia summoned a dalit MP from her party and directed him to take up the issue. Soon thereafter, on Sonia's gesture, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mr.Pawan Kumar Bansal stood up to say that the government agreed with the members and proposed to take steps to meet their demand.

Simultaneously, the government announced an all-party meeting to secure consensus for a law which guarantees reservations in promotions. Sonia's actions in the House and the subsequent announcement of the government's desire to introduce a Bill to ensure reservations in promotions constituted a political package meant to appease dalit sentiments and she ensured that the message got through in a comprehensive manner.

Sonia's political instincts and responses were on display yet again when a member of the Akali Dal raised the issue of the shoot out at a Gurdwara in Wisconsin, USA. She immediately signaled to a Congress MP from Punjab to raise the issue. As he came to the end of his intervention, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister was once again on his feet, on his leader's signal, accusing the Akali Dal of trying to make political capital out of the killing of Sikhs in America. We all knew that she was calling the shots, but now we know she is pulling the strings as well.

Sonia believes that "her" government (yes, it is hers and not that of the Prime Minister) is built on legitimate foundations. This is something that warrants closer scrutiny. The term "illegitimate" to which she took offence has many meanings. For example, it means an institution which is not endowed with authority. It also means something which is illegal or unlawful or forbidden by law. The Congress view is that a government voted into office by the people is a "legitimate" government and that it remains "legitimate" so long as the mandate remains intact.

Some of these postulates need to be tested. As Atul Kohli, an authority in Political Science has shown in his masterly work Democracy and Discontent, in India the so-called mandate dissipates within 18-24 months of an election. Barring exceptions, in most cases, public disappointment with the government they have elected will have reachexd the brim within two years of an election. Those who track electoral trends in the country will vouch for this. However, governments do not collapse because their mandate has been eroded. They remain in office. This is primarily because of two reasons - (1) most citizens are essentially democrats and (2) the next election is at least 36 months away. These are the reasons why governments to remain in office. As the government elected by them enters the third year in office, the people just suffer in silence and await the next election which will enable them to throw out the incumbent and usher in a change. Therefore, the period from month 24 to 60 witnesses something akin to the silence of the graveyard, and many persons in power foolishly mistake public patience for public approbation. Such leaders get the shock of their lives when the ballots are counted in the next election. Therefore, it does not make much sense to make such a song and dance about a government's "legitimacy" in the latter phase of its tenure.

More specifically, the Congress Party can hardly claim that its mandate is beyond question. Although the party has ruled the country for 52 years since independence, it has never had the support of a majority of the voters in any parliamentary election. Its vote share was always in the 42-45 range. The only time it came close to claiming majority support was when it secured 49 per cent of the votes polled in the Lok Sabha election held soon after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Over the last 15 years the party's vote share in national elections has dipped considerably. It currently hovers between 25-28 per cent, but the party has remained in power as head of a rag-tag coalition since 2004. Further, give the policy paralysis that grips UPA-II and its incapacity to tackle major problems confronting the country, including the economic downturn, unbridled corruption and the social and political unrest created by illegal migrants in Assam and several other states, one wonders what is left of this government's "legitimacy". Therefore, there is no merit in the government's objections to Mr. Advani's comments. However, as stated earlier, the only outcome worthy of notice is that The Reader is now The Leader!