NEW DELHI: Ready to fight her sixth Lok Sabha election, 72-year-old Sonia Gandhi seems to have given a clear political message that she is far from her long-speculated retirement and her party leaders feel she would be the all-important "binding force" when they need to join forces with other parties to take on BJP.
Her re-nomination as Congress candidate from Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh has also scotched rumours about she making way for daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in this family bastion and the leaders say it would also ensure that the family's youngest entrant into the political scene can dedicate her energy on poll campaign across the state and in other places rather than limiting it to just one seat.
But, the most important role the party wants Sonia Gandhi to play would be in firming up alliances, before as well as after elections, given her equation with senior leaders of several parties, multiple Congress leaders said.
Rumours have been doing rounds for long that Sonia Gandhi would hang her boots from active politics due to her ill health and she was now ready to pass the baton with son Rahul Gandhi having steadied in his role as Congress president and daughter Priyanka also entering the active politics with her appointment as a national general secretary with charge of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
However, the grand old party announced last night her name in the first list of candidates for Lok Sabha elections, expected to take place in April-May.
Party leaders said Rahul and Priyanka would concentrate on strengthening the organisation and the poll campaign, while Sonia Gandhi will help in reaching across the aisle to help form alliances and strengthen the party's challenge to the ruling BJP.
The Congress is banking on her experience and guidance to keep a balance between its young and old guard and also bring together like-minded parties while keeping the party in forefront of any anti-BJP alliance.
"Sonia Gandhi's acceptance among one and all is huge and that will play out well in the scenario that will pan out after elections," said a veteran Congressman who feels her vast experience of having successfully steered the party during her 19 years as Congress chief cannot be discounted.
Senior Congress leader and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said her renomination from Rae Bareli will help the party significantly, going by the experience she has in knowing the pulse of the common people in the country.
"Sonia Gandhi has her hand on pulse of the people in the country and reads it well, and this will significantly help the party as also in the government formation," Gehlot told PTI.
She is likely to continue as the Congress Parliamentary Party chairman and also provide a leadership to a post-poll coalition, which many non-BJP parties are seeking to form to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government, with a senior leader saying she would be the "glue" for keeping them together.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said Sonia Gandhi has always led from the front since she took over reins of the party.
"Her presence will lend more power to the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, where the party has already got a big boost with Priyanka's entry. The people of Rae Bareli can look forward to some great leadership and nurturing under Sonia ji. I'll be happy to support her in whatever way I can," he said.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said she is a source of inspiration and guidance for crores of Congress workers across the country and her "insurmountable dedication and work for the people of Rae Bareli has endeared her to one and all across the political spectrum".
"Congress leaders and workers of Uttar Pradesh, including of Rae Bareli, were in unison in their demand that Mrs Sonia Gandhi continues to represent them in Parliament. The party and Sonia Gandhi listened to the workers in seeking a fresh election," he told PTI.
Asked about her post-poll role, Surjewala said her role as UPA chairperson has been "stellar" and current Congress President Rahul Gandhi has the same rapport she shared with leaders of other parties.
This, he said, is evident from the alliances that the Congress party has put together.
Former Law minister and senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar said she continues to be a binding force not only within the Congress, but also for the purpose of a larger opposition unity in the current political context.
"She represents sagacity, wisdom and maturity in the political spectrum. Her presence is vital both inside and outside Parliament, keeping in view the present political situation in the country," he said.
This will be her sixth Lok Sabha election, since first being elected from Amethi in 1999.
She shifted to Rae Bareli in 2004, with Rahul Gandhi contesting from Amethi.
The speculation about her retirement started right after Rahul Gandhi becoming the party president, but it got a big leg-up when she said last year in Parliament, "I am going to retire."
However, political compulsions seem to have kept her in active politics.
It has been said it was she who convinced her husband Rajiv Gandhi to occupy the prime minister's post after his mother Indira Gandhi's assassination.
But when her name was being talked about for the prime ministerial position in 2004, she surprised all by declaring Manmohan Singh as her choice to lead the country.
Crediting her for bringing the non-BJP forces together during UPA-I and UPA II, party leaders said her presence is necessary again for another alliance.