Rahul Gandhi’s impending elevation as the Congress president also marks the end of the tenure as party chief of his mother, Sonia Gandhi. That Sonia Gandhi, a reluctant leader to begin with, headed the Congress for 19 years, the longest tenure for a president in the history of the 132-year-old party, is both remarkable and telling. It underlines the centrality of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in the Congress: For better, and as it often seems, for worse, the family remains the glue that holds the party together. Whether it is sufficient to propel its revival from its prolonged crisis and decline is the question.
As Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi’s is a mixed legacy. Party leaders persuaded her to accept the post in a bid to prevent it from imploding after its young and charismatic leader, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed during the general election campaign of 1991. P.V. Narasimha Rao was brought out of retirement to head a shaky government at the Centre. Two significant events when Rao was PM changed the course of the Congress and the destiny of the country. The Rao government’s failure in protecting the Babri Masjid paved the way for the rise and spread of Hindutva as a counter narrative to the secularism crafted and nurtured by Jawaharlal Nehru, which the Congress all too often failed to live up to. The Rao government also championed market forces, a departure from the ostensibly “pro-poor” economics projected by Indira Gandhi. When Sonia Gandhi stepped in as party chief, therefore, the end of the “consensus” presided over by the Congress had already begun. She stopped the bleeding of the party and under her, it saw a mini revival in the 2004 general election. She took the initiative to stitch together the UPA, and post-election, she declined the office of the PM. But her decision ended up blurring the lines of democratic accountability.
The setting up of the National Advisory Council turned Sonia Gandhi into a parallel power centre outside the government. It undermined the stature and authority of the PM’s office and weakened the Congress-led government. Her failures to more boldly and imaginatively explore avenues to provide the Congress a new leadership model, and reinvent its organisation, are even more enduring for her party.