To resume the long and complex story of the last decade of the last century, which began a fortnight ago (See ‘After Rajiv and before Sonia’, September 24), it was in December 1997 that Sonia Gandhi suddenly announced a reversal of her seven-year-long stand never to take part in politics. She declared that she would canvass for the Congress in the parliamentary polls due in March 1998, even though she had tersely refused to do so two years earlier.
A fresh poll had become necessary because of the Congress’s gratuitous withdrawal of support to the I K Gujral-led United Front government. Remarkably, she spoke only after the country knew that former PM P V Narasimha Rao would play no part in the impending elections. Moreover, while promising to campaign for the Congress, she emphatically declared that she would not contest for a Lok Sabha seat.
In the elections, a BJP-led coalition, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, won power. However, Sonia’s subtlety came to the fore as she saw to it that without being a member of either House of Parliament she was elected chairperson of the Congress parliamentary party. Like much else, she had evidently learnt this too from her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who was also out of Parliament for some time during the 1970s, but was elected the parliamentary
There were three main reasons goading Sonia to do what she did. But of these, she publicly stated only one, though the unstated two were equally transparent. From every podium she proclaimed that her reason for jumping into the electoral fray was to “save India from the cynicism driving those who use religion and caste to divide the country”. Her target was clearly the BJP. For its part, the saffron party did worry that Sonia, more than any other Congress leader, might blunt “the seemingly unstoppable pro-BJP wave”. So, it chose to attack her sharply, concentrating on her two principal vulnerabilities: her “foreign origin” and her “association with the guilty men of Bofors”.
She hit back equally hard. She challenged all concerned to get all the papers about Bofors released by the government. And she said that as a member of Indira Gandhi’s family she was a member of the wider Indian clan and would “die as one”. This is the appropriate place to mention the two other reasons for Sonia’s plunge into active politics that she never acknowledged: Her fear that the once thriving party of her mother-in-law and her husband was in danger of disintegrating and must therefore be saved and revamped; and her determination that her husband’s sceptre must eventually be passed on to their son, Rahul, already treated by the party as the “crown prince”.
These days, Sonia is fluent in both Hindi and English. Way back, when she first headed the Congress election campaign, she read out her Hindi speeches, written in Roman script and laced with the Italian accent, with some difficulty. Yet, wherever she went — usually accompanied by daughter Priyanka or son Rahul or both — huge crowds applauded her. On January 11, 1998, the latest inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy made her political debut with an election rally close to the spot in the southern town of Sriperumbudur, where Rajiv was blown up by a smiling suicide bomber of the LTTE.
Thereafter, no matter where she went, the welcome to her grew warmer. However, when the results came in, it was proved yet again that cheering crowds during the campaign do not necessarily turn into voters at the polling booth. The Congress performance was marginally worse than that under Rao. One seat was added to the earlier Congress tally of 140, but the party lost its vote share by 3 per cent. Rao had been ridiculed and thrown out. Sonia was hailed as a conquering heroine. Her own interpretation of the election results seemed to be that it was a mandate for her to take over the Congress presidency. The bloodless coup against Sitaram Kesri followed. Meanwhile, Sonia had quietly obtained the party’s primary membership.
In the well-established tradition of the dynasty-dominated Congress, Sonia could have been elected president unanimously. But some dissidents were still around and some of her sensible loyalists felt that, given the prevailing circumstances, her election should be contested so that her victory is seen as decisive and the country is impressed by the introduction of inner-party democracy in the Congress that had hitherto been a fiefdom of the first family.
But those offering this sensible advice had underestimated the virulence of Sonia’s supporters. Jitendra Prasad, himself a veteran of the “coterie politics”, who stood against Sonia, was denounced as a “traitor” and treated as such. Since then, Sonia has become the longest-serving president of the Congress in its 130-year history. But there has never been a contest for the post in her time.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator