Sonia Gandhi served as the Congress President for over 19 years, the longest-ever tenure as the chief of any Indian political party.
Sonia Gandhi's career as a political figure is as big an enigma as any in Indian politics. Even her marriage with a former prime minister couldn't insulate her from political barbs because of Italian origin.
And yet, just a couple of months after foraying in politics for the first time in 1997, Rajiv Gandhi’s wife had been elevated to her husband's former position at the helm of the Indian National Congress, a position she continues to hold to this day. As of midnight on December 9, Sonia Gandhi had served as the Congress party's president for a total of 19 years, 8 months and 23 days, the longest-ever tenure as the chief of any Indian political party.
How did this come to be? How did a foreigner manage to establish such an airtight hold over an Indian political party so quickly, despite being surrounded by patriarchal old-timers who were the feature of India’s politics in the 90s?
It all started in the aftermath of the Congress losing the 1996 general elections, when several senior party members rebelled against then party president Sitaram Kesri. Several of these members, including Mamata Banerjee, Arjun Singh and Narayan Dutt Tiwari had broken off from the Congress and formed their own political parties.
With an intent to mend the damage sustained by the Congress during this period, Sonia Gandhi, who had refused to become prime minister in 1991 when her husband was assassinated, joined the party as a primary member in 1997. When party seniors realised that there was a Gandhi in the Congress’ upper echelon for the first time since Rajiv Gandhi, they saw her as the ideal candidate to bring the party back to its former glory.
Sure enough, Gandhi was offered the post of the party president a mere 62 days after she first joined it, and she accepted it immediately. In the backdrop of the prime minister's post changing hands every few months, both the Congress and Indian politics as a whole welcomed the move as it brought some long-sought stability to the helm. After all, the Congress was, by far, the largest party in the country back then and any instability in its leadership would usually coincide with periods where the country’s governance was in disarray.
However, the grand old party could not exactly repair all the damage sustained over the past couple of years overnight. The recovery would have to be slow but steady, and most importantly, sure. The foundation that would have to be established would have to be a strong one that stood the test of time. There was never going to be enough time to get all that done before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.
The 1999 elections passed by, with the Congress taking second place behind Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP. But Sonia Gandhi quickly established her position within the Congress. She contested the elections from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and Bellary in Karnataka, and won handsomely in both constituencies, besting veteran BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in the southern state.
The next four years were largely spent building a foundation and extending ties with other parties. The goal was to rope in enough parties to offset any loss of seats to the BJP in the next elections and that’s exactly what Congress did. After emerging Leader of Opposition in 1999, Sonia Gandhi had officially become the face of the Congress and reached her pinnacle in the 2004 general elections.
With the BJP-led NDA alliance propagating the ‘India Shining’ slogan all over the country, Gandhi decided to counter with a slogan of her own. She campaigned across the country with her Aam Aadmi slogan, asking ‘Who is India shining for?’ The campaign worked and the NDA suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA alliance. Another Gandhi was set to take office as India’s prime minister and if her predecessors’ records were anything to go by, it would be a long stay.
But fate had something else planned for the part-time waitress who met Rajiv Gandhi while he was at Trinity College in Cambridge. There was nothing ordinary about that meeting, and there was certainly nothing ordinary about the woman she had now become because of it. When the NDA cried foul about her foreign origin, Gandhi recognised this as an opportunity. Despite the Supreme Court of India dismissing suits against her taking office as Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi put forward Manmohan Singh for the job and her recommendation was quickly lapped up by members of the party.
What Gandhi had done was make sure that she was still calling all the shots within the party, without the scrutiny that came along with actually holding office. She was a part of the National Advisory Council for the first two years of Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister but had to resign over an office-for-profit controversy. But this did not stop her from shaping the way ahead for her party.
Over the first term of the UPA government, Sonia Gandhi is credited with having brought to life both the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. Her leadership was also the key behind establishing Congress’ strong foothold in the country that would see the party through the 2009 general elections and keep it in office.
With all this being said, a summary of Sonia Gandhi’s political career, especially one of her tenure as the Indian National Congress’ chairperson, would be incomplete without a mention of the word ‘scam’. The word became everyday parlance on the streets and in households, especially during the UPA’s second term. Various scams like the 2G scam and the coal-gate scam, both of which took place under her watch, surfaced during this time. Her son-in-law Robert Vadra was also publicly criticised for his involvement in nefarious land deals and she was criticised for allegedly facilitating it.
But despite these questions about her loyalties and her roots, there is little doubt that Sonia Gandhi has probably been the most powerful head of the Congress party after her famous mother-in-law, Indira. Even though the party suffered its worst ever defeat in a general election in India in 2014, her hold over the Congress was enough to convince everyone of the weight the Gandhi name still holds. So much so that despite repeated doubts over his capabilities, her son Rahul Gandhi was unchallenged as her successor as Congress President.When Sonia hands the reins over to Rahul Gandhi, the pressure on him to return the party to its former glory would be enormous. Both his grandmother and his mother have been quite successful in bringing the party back from the brink and since he still has his mother to advice him, many will expect him to start producing results soon.