Top Congress leader Sonia Gandhi recently noted in Raipur that she was glad her “innings” was coming to an end with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. However, party seniors have clarified that this did not mean that she was retiring from politics. This is a realistic enough hope.
Mrs Gandhi’s political stature remains undiminished long after she made way for her son Rahul Gandhi to assume the reins as party president in 2017, 19 years after she herself had been elected chief. The Congress was in the wilderness when she became president but through her boldness, wisdom and strategic vision she put the party back on the rails and led it to two back-to-back Lok Sabha wins, permitting it to head a coalition of parties in government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Sonia Gandhi had brought a ramshackle Congress to life. Just over half her term as party president was as the undisputed leader of the ruling party. This is a singular achievement, especially for a foreign-born woman who had been challenged by the Congress’ opponents across the political spectrum, and some even in her own party who split away, on that very count.
After the death of her husband Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister, in 1991, the Congress had pleaded with Mrs Gandhi to take over as party leader. She steadfastly refused. It was only after a gap of seven years that she chose to stand for election as party president when she sensed that the Congress was in a tight corner. In the Sitaram Kesri years as party chief, the party had lacked charismatic leadership as well as a viable programme. This changed with the arrival of Sonia Gandhi on the scene.
Through careful preparation, under her leadership, in 2004, the Congress and its allies were able to defeat the BJP-led ruling coalition functioning under the well-loved Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose successes had been many. It is noteworthy that through Vajpayee’s six years in office, the PM and Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi enjoyed a mutually respectful, even affectionate, relationship — an era that now seems so far away.
Sonia Gandhi’s strength was that she clearly understood that no party in the country could come to power on its own. Courtesy, fair play and a freshness of approach marked her overtures to regional parties on the way to the formation of a winning coalition. When the Congress returned to power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi declined to be PM. This was widely seen as unbelievable. The Congress leader chose instead to establish the non-official National Advisory Council which crafted welfare-oriented policies for the government’s consideration, like the Food Security Act, the Right to Information, the Right to Education and the MNREGA, each one of which has stood the country in good stead.
Mrs Gandhi paved the way for a non-Gandhi to be PM in a Congress-led government, and now the Gandhis have made way for a non-Gandhi to be party chief. If the latter had happened earlier and Mrs Gandhi had systematised periodic party polls, her attainments would have been hard to rival. Even so, as the Lok Sabha poll of 2024 nears, Sonia Gandhi’s enviable skills as a coalition maker will be needed by her party and others opposing the BJP. Although her health is a concern, it is hard to see Mrs Gandhi fading into the sunset. But an era has doubtless passed.