From the moment the cup shook in her hand at her first brush with the Indian press after entering active politics, to handing over the baton to son, Rahul, after 19 years of heading the Indian National Congress, Sonia Gandhi has come a long way. Who would have thought that the “foreign” bahu of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who had pleaded with husband, Rajiv, not to take over the mantle of Indira Gandhi after her assassination in 1984, would acquire the political persona to be the longest serving president of India’s Grand Old Party?
When she took over, doubts were expressed about whether she would understand the nuances of Indian politics and be able to pick up the phone and talk to M. Karunanidhi or Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For, at the end of the day, Indian politics is as much about maintaining cross-party links as anything else. As things turned out, she had a way with Mayawati — Sonia is a good listener — and an unusual rapport with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Today — this, too, is a paradox — when Opposition leaders think of forging unity, they see Sonia as a possible sutradhar.
Her singular contribution has been to keep the Indian National Congress intact as an entity, despite challenges. When she took over, the Congress was being eroded at the edges with senior leaders quitting to join the BJP — as is happening today when Rahul takes charge. Sharad Pawar left the Congress on the issue of her “foreign origins”, but Sonia, known as she is for her pragmatism, joined hands with his NCP to form a coalition government in Maharashtra. Jagan Reddy also formed his YSR Congress, though, for the Congress, the creation of a separate Telangana proved to be no small mistake, with the party losing a traditional stronghold in the south. This, when the Congress had not been able to regain its hold in the Hindi heartland. Sonia would often wring her hands helplessly about Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Her other contribution, for which she will be remembered, is the rights-based approach she insisted on for the UPA, though the pro-economic reforms troika in the UPA — Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia — had opposed it, to begin with. With the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI), Right to Food Security, Right to Employment (MGNREGS), Right to Education, Sonia consciously tried to take the Congress back to its left-of-Centre moorings, which also paid the party electoral dividends in 2009.
This came in handy in dealing with the Left parties which kept UPA I on its toes, and she moved through the National Advisory Council. Acquiring a pro-downtrodden image was also calculated to mitigate some of the criticism that came her way from the BJP on her foreign origins. Sonia was conscious she was not Indira Gandhi, and would often say so. She had her way in many decisions and appointments in UPA I, moving through Pulok Chatterji and Ahmed Patel, and has been charged with being an “extra constitutional authority”. The UPA’s coalition model was an unusual one, with Sonia declining PMship, after having been elected as leader of the Congress/UPA parliamentary party — one day she may reveal why — and she appointed Manmohan Singh as PM. This necessitated both working together, because coalitions, at the end of the day, are all about power sharing.
Now to her two main failures. First, her inability to comprehend what was happening to the Hindu psyche, and the process of Hinduisation that was underway. The “Hindu Hridaya Samrat” Narendra Modi was able to encash this sentiment in 2014. A.K. Antony in his post mortem report of the Congress rout in 2014 had acknowledged that the Congress’ “pro-minority” image had hurt the party’s prospects, when traditionally the Congress had been an umbrella party representing all communities. Many Hindus reacted (rightly or wrongly is immaterial here) to what they saw as “appeasement” of the Muslims (who remain at the bottom of the heap in education, jobs, health).
Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping in Gujarat is an attempt to correct that impression. Two, she could neither assess nor control the damage done to the Congress during UPA II, when the scams hit the party. Always reluctant to rock the boat, she neither took timely action — when she did, the damage had been done — nor was the Congress able to turn around the situation by setting a different political agenda. Initially, Sonia used to take decisions by consulting a wide group of people; later this changed.
Rahul’s reluctance to take charge compounded the Congress’ woes. The silent resistance to Rahul by the old guard, which feared a generational change, did not help. Nor did Rahul’s “getaways” create confidence in his ability to lead. With drift continuing unchecked, and scams and prices on the rise, and Sonia unable to intervene — this reflected a non-comprehension of the political reality — the party’s stock plummeted. It was a situation ready made for an electoral rout, which is what happened. Today the Congress faces a possibly existential crisis, even as Sonia makes way for the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi to head the party. While Sonia had Vajpayee and L.K. Advani as opponents, Rahul has to face the more formidable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, who have vowed to create a “Congress mukt Bharat”. But it is not likely to be curtains for Sonia and she is expected to continue as “chairperson” of the Congress parliamentary party, and the head of the UPA, tasked to enlarge it for the big battle ahead in 2019. She will also be called upon to mediate in decisions within the Congress, between the party’s old guard and Rahul’s new team.
How will history judge Sonia Gandhi? A Congress president who largely held the 132 year-old party together, who declined PMship, which few do and this gained her popular acceptance, who created a sense of confidence in the minorities, so important in a nation as diverse as ours, and who took the party to unexpected victories but also to its worst ever performance. And whose stewardship of the Congress paved the way for the unprecedented rise of the Hindu nationalist forces in India.