NEW DELHI: The countdown to Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president will also see the curtains coming down on Sonia Gandhi’s presidency. The 70-yr-old Gandhi’s uninterrupted 19-year stint at the helm of the 131-year-old Congress is a record. As the only member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to assume leadership when Congress was out of power, post-Independence, Gandhi had to struggle for years before steering the party back to power in 2004, for a 10-year stint when she became India’s most powerful politician. Her stint also saw the party face the worst electoral drubbings too: 114 seats in 1 9 9 9 and 44 seats in 2014. Sonia Gandhi’s presidency thus has several shades.
That explains the collective yearning in the party’s echelons for her continued presence, as a mentor, en route to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, to help Congress and alliance partners settle down with Rahul Gandhi’s dejure leadership. More than the party, Rahul Gandhi has to learn from Sonia Gandhi’s stylebook the craft of operating the complex political engine called Congress that has separate segments with operating algorithms controlled by entrenched leaders.
Sonia Gandhi’s initial survival skills against heavy odds, her methods of unifying a dispirited Congress, her forging of a rainbow coalition to defeat Vajpayee, all provide him lessons. When she became Congress president, she was lucky to have a readymade leadership around her, comprising veterans and a crack team her age, all skilled in realpolitik during the Indira-Sanjay years.
As her son takes over, most of the veterans have passed on and Team Sonia is ageing, leaving the eager but inexperienced Team Rahul the task of learning overnight the seniors’ skills. After her dramatic elevation in March 1998, an amateurish Gandhi faced years of challenge. RSS-BJP targeted her ‘foreign origin’, ‘Catholic roots’, resurrected Bofors and portrayed her as a greedy usurper. Gandhi used the highly personalised attacks and two Congress electoral defeats, in 1998 and 1999, to politically temper herself, while displaying a steely resolve. She was a quick learner and realistic in her self-assessment about her role of being the Gandhi face in the Congress leadership.
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She did not get carried away by the lore that a Nehru-Gandhi surname foreclosed in-house challenges. She knew her mother-in-law was challenged by the Syndicate and by the Moraraji-Jagjivan Ram-Bahuguna clique. She also had seen how her husband’s illadvised run-in with the old guard resulted in an electoral rout in 1989. Gandhi became the glue Congress needed after the rift in the party during the Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesri years. She also gave Congress leaders their space and role. Even after she acquired greater authority, she unsettled very few PCC chiefs and chief ministers, making her a status-quoist.
In return, she commanded the loyalty of most seniors, something that explained why the Sharad Pawar revolt failed to have a cascading effect. She reinforced her position by travelling widely to mobilise the party, acquiring the ‘Soniamma’ image among women and poor. Gandhi played on her personal goodwill to rally anti-BJP forces, mastering the Congress-led UPA victory, topping it with her ‘renunciation.’ Yet, her eventual falling out with three leaders who propelled the ‘Sonia project’ — Arjun Singh, ML Fotedar, Natwar Singh — holds an unnerving message to those who bet too much on loyalty.
Contrary to talks of tension between Sonia and Rao, the latter was demolished before she took charge: Kesri, backed by most leaders, humiliated Rao first by denying him party ticket for ‘not protecting’ the Babri Masjid and then by forcing him to quit as CPP leader, after threatening to sack him. (Later, when a demolished Kesri was made to second a resolution at Siri Fort AICC session, ratifying Sonia’s appointment as party chief, Rao sat on the podium with a rarely-seen glee).
While the story of Sonia Gandhi remote-controlling and crippling Manmohan Singh’s prime-ministership may sound catchy, the reality was that Singh would not have survived as PM even for a month without her unflinching support, notwithstanding the continuing debate why she chose Singh — because he was the most eligible or because she was wary of handing over the reins to an entrenched leader. While Gandhi-led NAC sometimes made even many Congress leaders cringe, NAC deserves credit for many social-welfare schemes and steps such as RTI. In the end, when many in the Congress prayed for a political surgery to save the sinking UPA-2, Gandhi was caught in her own dilemma.