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At 15, Sonia still at crossroads

In the spring of 1999, the Congress party under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi had scored a major political victory on the floor of Lok Sabha with Atal Bihari Vajpayee government losing the trust of the house by a single vote. The party excitedly waited for the general election and saw a chance for return to power before the turn of the millennium.

However, fate willed otherwise. Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was challenged in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) with Sharad Pawar, leader of the opposition in the outgoing house, Purno Sangama, speaker of Lok Sabha between 1996-98 and Tariq Anwar, political secretary to Sonia’s predecessor Sitaram Kesri, raising the banner of revolt on the question of her foreign origin. Sonia Gandhi went into an immediate sulk, resigning as Congress president.

When the Congress leaders had pushed for Sonia as party president in 1998, their main concern was to return to power ASAP (as soon as possible). But for Gandhi it was the question of not just reclaiming leadership but also complete trust of the cadres to the Nehru-Gandhi family, which had shown signs of erosion over the years. Thus the challenge posed by Pawar-Sangama-Anwar in the summer of 1998 gave her that chance to test the trust she enjoyed in her party, beyond the confines of Congress Working Committee.

‘It is not possible that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence, and ability can have anyone other than an Indian, born on Indian soil, to head its government,’ said the letter written jointly by Pawar, Sangama and Anwar to Gandhi. The BJP and its allies, which had first raised the foreign origin issue, were more than happy with the revolt. Then BJP president Kushabhau Thakre had stated, ‘We are pleased to see there are some in the Congress who have feelings of nationalism.’

The revolt in the Congress happened at the time when war broke out between India and Pakistan in Kargil sector and the polls got shifted to after monsoon the season. Despite heading a caretaker government, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his defence minister George Fernandes emerged as national heroes leading India to a resounding victory. They were justly rewarded in the general elections which followed, where the Congress party gave its worst ever performance getting just 114 Lok Sabha seats. Despite the rout Sonia Gandhi retained her position having consolidated her leadership.

To know how she managed to overcome the thrashing at the hustling, we would have to go back May 1999, when the triumvirate Pawar, Sangama and Anwar had revolted. Despite the Congress Working Committee pledging her support, Sonia refused to come out. She waited for the workers to exhort her. Next the powerful club of Congress chief ministers led by Sheila Dikshit, Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot among others forwarded their resignations in her support. She refused to yield as she waited for the Congress cadres to arrive and lay siege of the party headquarters. They did not let her down and did come in large numbers.

Satisfied that a point has been made to the Congress leadership, Sonia yielded and agreed to remain the party president. While many compare her move to be akin to that of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, who too thrived on mass support, Sonia is different. While she connects well with the cadres, she also trusts her party leaders. The latter quality hitherto was unknown in her dynasty. Her politics has so far reaped rich dividends for the party.

The widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia generally is seen as protégé of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi. However, unlike her mother-in-law and husband, she did not choose to anoint herself as the leader riding the crest of popular political sentiments. She chose to remain in political hibernation for seven long years following her husband’s assassination in 1991.

Whatever criticism her political opponents may have of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, they would also concede that she took charge of the party when its fortunes were at ebb. The party had lost power in 1996 and thereafter decline had been both steady and rapid. Sonia entered the fray only to revive the tottering monolith, which she has done so very effectively.

As she completed 15 years in office last week, questions have been asked – what next? Despite the official elevation of her son Rahul Gandhi to a position next to her in the party hierarchy, Sonia would remain the Congress helmsperson. Though the Congress leaders may find this completely unpalatable but Rahul Gandhi would repeatedly be compared with his mother’s charisma and style.

Rahul is seen as inheriting the mantle of his father and grandfather. Therein lays the problem. They belonged to the era of non-coalition and brute majority government whereas Sonia has commandeered the party through the hustle and bustle of multi-party government. Unlike Indira and Rajiv, who were known to be non-forgiving towards the disloyal, Sonia has embraced all her detractors and their scions whether inside or outside the Congress.

Secularism and renouncement of power have been cornerstone of her politics. Something which her son Rahul too tries to emulate, however, where he falters is his inability to charm his detractors and rivals. Rahul’s coronation could only be possible if the party manages to retain power in 2014. If it doesn’t the Gandhi matriarch would have the task of reinvention at her hand, something which she was asked to do for the party a decade-and-half back.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post

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