As Sonia Gandhi completes 20 years in politics, the Congress party is gearing up for a leadership change. The president of the grand old party of India is ready to pass on the baton to her son Rahul Gandhi. From being Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign-origin wife to being the longest-serving chief of the Congress, Sonia’s life has seen its fair share of ups and downs. However, her chairmanship has guided the Congress through some difficult times and installed the party in power for two consecutive terms.
Life before politics
Sonia Maino (her maiden name) was from a small Italian village in Contrada Màini. She met Rajiv Gandhi, an engineering student, while working as a part-time waitress at the Cambridge University restaurant. After their three-year old courtship, the couple got married in 1968 and Sonia moved to India with husband Rajiv Gandhi. Initially, she kept away from the limelight, making only occasional public appearances. The couple had two children, Priyanka and Rahul.
Taking the political plunge
The sudden death of Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi forced Rajiv to enter politics in 1980. After Indira's assassination in 1984 at their Delhi residence by her Sikh bodyguards, he became the Prime Minister of India. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in a suicide bombing at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu in 1991, Sonia became reclusive and was hardly seen in public till 1997.
1n 1997, after prolonged requests from Congress leaders to take over the mantle of the party, Sonia Gandhi became a member of the Congress. In a matter of 62 days, she was elected over Jitendra Prasada to become the Congress President, succeeding Sitaram Kesri.
Role as Opposition Leader
In her early days of politics, she was often compared to Indira Gandhi for her dressing style and personality. During the Vajpayee government in 1998, she was the Opposition leader, and would often read out her speeches in English, against the Parliament rules for which she was mocked at. She was mocked as a 'goongi gudiya' (mute doll) as she spoke very little and in an accented Hindi. Her foreign origin was used constantly against her, even by some Congress members.
As a political opponent, she played a masterstroke when she was able to convince late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa to withdraw support from the NDA government, which later on was followed by NDA's defeat in the vote of confidence by just a single vote. Though she managed to displace the existing government, she failed to form her own.
Holding the reins
In 2004, Congress emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha elections. Since the Congress failed to secure an absolute majority, it formed a new coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Sonia Gandhi.
At the time Sonia Gandhi was a natural choice as the next Prime Minister, but there were voices of dissent due to her Italian origin among other reasons. In a move that took everyone by surprise, Sonia Gandhi nominated prominent economist Manmohan Singh to the Prime Minister’s post. He subsequently stood for polls within six months and was elected as an MP, a prerequisite to hold the position of Prime Minister.
Sonia became the chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC), which drew members mainly from civil society and which advised the Prime Minister on several key policy decisions. Sonia was thus instrumental in the implementation of key programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the Food Security Bill, the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005, and the Right to Education, among others.
Controversies that clung
Sonia Gandhi was forced to resign from the Lok Sabha and as chairperson of the NAC in March 2006 after the controversy regarding office-of-profit. As per law, a member of parliament cannot hold an office-of-profit.
As the controversies mounted, people and opposition leaders targeted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was often ridiculed as a puppet of Sonia Gandhi.
Sonia was named as an accused in the National Herald, AgustaWestland, and son-in-law Robert Vadra's land scam cases.
Losing her grip
During the election campaigning for 2014 Lok Sabha election, Sonia was less prominent while her son Rahul Gandhi was at the forefront, in a direct face-off with NDA’s Narendra Modi. Many owe it to her poor health as well as the plan to project Rahul as the next face of the party. In the process, Jairam Ramesh, the man who was behind the election campaign for the Congress in both 2004 and 2009, was marginalised midway during the election.
Sonia's fewer public appearances, Rahul's taking over of the election campaign, and infighting in the party may have worked against the Congress, resulting in its massive defeat.
In the 2014 general elections, the Congress party won only 44 seats but Sonia Gandhi managed to retain her Rae Bareily constituency.
Successive defeats in various state elections after the 2014 drubbing left the Congress party having to rethink its strategies to stay relevant in the current political scenario.
Partymen believe a leadership change is the way forward. Only time will tell whether or not Rahul Gandhi’s elevation will rejuvenate the eroded legacy of the Congress, but Sonia’s two decades at the helm, in which she steered the grand old party into the millennium, will always remain etched not only in the history of the Indian National Congress, but as a shining era in which the common citizen was empowered through the constitution.