It was in May 2004 that Sonia Gandhi had led the Congress party, in partnership with its allies, back to power, after eight years in the wilderness. By declining the office of prime minister and assigning it to Manmohan Singh, she also retained the real power within the ruling structure. The joke then was that power “resided at 10 Janpath while Manmohan Singh lived in the prime minister’s house at 7 Race Course Road”. Discussion and gossip on this subject, in print or on TV, has been gargantuan. But surprisingly little notice has been taken of an equally crucial earlier period, from Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 to March 1998. On the latter date, Sonia, firmly opposed to accepting any political office, suddenly staged a bloodless coup against the then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, a wily old master in intrigue but with little concern for political scruples. Most members of the heavily factionalised Congress, squirming in the unfamiliar torment of having to sit in the opposition benches, were ecstatic about the change. Defections from the party ceased, and it once again had as its head someone they could sing hosannas to.
Though not entirely unexpected, the changeover in the Congress party affairs was slow and strictly according to Sonia’s own careful calculations. Come to think of it, even during the moment of intense grief in 1991, when she firmly and repeatedly refused to step into her husband’s shoes, the selection of Rajiv Gandhi’s successor was essentially left to her. P.V. Narasimha Rao was not her first choice. He got the job only because Shankar Dayal Sharma, then president of the republic, was unable to carry the heavy burden because of his age and ill health. Thereafter, from behind the scene, she quietly managed to influence whatever party decision she was interested in.
Nor was it a secret during Rao’s five-year tenure that relations between him and Sonia were strained because he found it hard to live and work under her constant and lengthening shadow. Those of Rao’s rivals and critics, whether in the government or the party, who felt aggrieved by the PM, and their number was large, made a beeline to Sonia’s residence. In listening to them, however, she was very discreet. When senior cabinet ministers such as N.D. Tiwari, Arjun Singh and several others were forming a separate party named Congress (T), they were sure of Sonia’s tacit support. But when they beseeched her to “grace its inaugural session even for five minutes”, she flatly refused. She refused Rao’s request to her to canvass for the Congress in the 1996 general elections equally firmly. Indeed, she used this opportunity to inform the country that she wasn’t even a primary member of the Congress, notwithstanding her presence at every Congress conclave, where her arrival always disrupted the proceedings by loud slogans of the faithful requesting her to come to the aid of the party, and thus “save the Congress and the country”.
These, however, were minor irritants to Rao. What troubled him intensely was Sonia’s strong criticism of the very slow-moving inquiry into her husband’s assassination, combined with reports that the PM was toying with the idea of winding it up. At first, she only wrote letters to Rao that gave him sleepless nights.
And then, on a visit to her husband’s constituency, Amethi, Sonia made her first full-length speech in Hindi, deploring the dilatory tactics regarding the inquiry and regretting that the policies of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv were being given a go-by. Rao was furious but there was little he could do. On the contrary, after losing the 1996 elections, he was forced to surrender the office of Congress president to Kesri, and ceased to be the leader of the Congress parliamentary party with the dissolution of the House in December 1997 after a fresh election became necessary because of the Congress’s own acts.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first government in May 1996 turned out to be a 13-day wonder, the only viable government at the Centre could be a relatively small combination calling itself the United Front, with Congress support “from outside”. Its first PM was H.D. Deve Gowda, who got on with Rao famously. But on becoming Congress president, Kesri’s first action was to withdraw the party’s support to Gowda. This happened because Kesri had reason to believe that manifestly vengeful Gowda was preparing a criminal case against him. However, the United Front was allowed to remain in power under the leadership of the much-liked I.K. Gujral. Within six months, the Congress leadership pulled the plug on Gujral, too. This time round, the reason was impersonal. An interim report by a one-man judicial commission had stated that the DMK of Tamil Nadu was “complicit” in Rajiv’s assassination. Congress leaders demanded that the DMK be expelled from the ruling alliance. Gujral understandably refused. The rest of the story is long and complex and will be resumed next fortnight.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator