By Yash Shukla
Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress party, who has been at the helm of affairs for 19 long years is all set to retire from active politics and hand over the reins of the Grand Old Party to her son Rahul Gandhi. The life and journey of Sonia Gandhi have been as dramatic as one can imagine.
The Red Sari
Born in a middle-class family as a Roman Catholic in 1946 in Italy, to becoming the most powerful person in India, her journey has been the inspiration for many books. In particular, The Red Sari by Spanish author Javier Moro talks about the dramatic events that had shaped the life of Sonia Gandhi. The book was unable to see the light of the day until 2014 when Congress lost power to BJP. The book was released in 2014 after the BJP government allowed its release.
The journey of a person who would have become the first Roman Catholic Prime Minister of India had she not, at the last moment, turned down the post in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, is worth looking at. It is especially significant at this point in time when comparisons between the lives of Sonia and Rahul are being made. As the Congress party looks forward to the new President, its cadres and people at large fondly remember the day when Sonia Gandhi took the reigns of the party in 1998 and did that for good, leading the party to victory twice, in 2004 and then in 2009.
The wife of India’s youngest Prime Minister
Sonia Gandhi was a young student of English at Cambridge where she met her future husband and the son of India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Rajiv, at that point in time, was a student of Engineering at Cambridge. Little did Sonia and Rajiv know what destiny had in store for them. Rajiv was an ambitious pilot with no interest in politics. He was pushed to the scene after the death of his younger brother in a plane crash and after his mother was assassinated at the hands of her bodyguards in 1984. In the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s death, Rajiv became the Prime Minister and there on began the journey of Sonia Gandhi as the wife of India’s youngest Prime Minister.
The reluctant leader
Alas, destiny had something else in store: in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE militants. After his death, the Congress leaders asked Sonia to lead from the front but, being a person from a different nation deterred her from entering into politics.
In 1998, Sonia overcame her reluctance and formally took charge of the Congress party, which had then been battling with internal feuds and divisions. Some of the senior leaders opposed her being made the President, owing to her Italian origin. Those leaders Sharad Pawar who, along with some other leaders, parted ways with the Congress party and formed the Nationalist Congress Party. Apart from the internal contention, Sonia had to face the barbs of the Opposition, which also targeted her Italian origin and made it an issue in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Questions were raised regarding the leadership of Sonia Gandhi when the BJP, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, won the elections in 1998.
However, Sonia, with the support of senior and experienced leaders like Pranab Mukherjee, AK Antony and Ahmed Patel, persisted in her efforts and to the surprise of everyone, led the party to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Sonia Gandhi very adroitly and skillfully stitched political alliances with the Left parties and socialist parties and was able to lead the party to victory. Sonia, being aware of the Opposition’s charges on her origin, deliberately kept a low profile and very quickly learnt the nuances of Indian politics. According to leaders who saw Sonia in her recent years, she always took all the leaders with her and tried to form a consensus. She also isolated herself from media scrutiny and confined herself to public rallies where she would read carefully written speeches and would never speak impromptu.
Rising stature and later challenges
The stature of Sonia Gandhi in the eyes of Congress leaders and the public increased manifold when she refused to lead the government as its leader, and instead chose Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister. The sacrifice made her win many hearts inside, as well as outside, the party.
Sonia strengthened her position inside the party and led the Congress party to a consecutive victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Sonia Gandhi, who is called “madam” by the cadres and leaders of the party, took full control of the party and went on to become the most powerful person in India. She was even accused of running the government by a remote control.
However, the challenge came in the form of BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. He accused the Congress party of corruption and dynasty politics and subsequently went on to win the election in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, reducing Congress to its worst tally of 44 Lok Sabha seats. Political commentators believe that Mrs Gandhi did not promote the second generation of leaders in the Congress party. Moreover, leaders like Jagmohan Reddy and Himanta Biswa Sarma were sidelined. The corruption allegations and the shape of the economy were the Achilles heels of the Congress government and made it impossible for the party to stand any chance in front of the BJP led by Modi.
As the Congress party waits for the new President to take charge and with Sonia Gandhi retiring, Rahul Gandhi can and must follow the trajectory of his mother, whose challenges were as manifold as the ones he faces today.
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