After the assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi, for over seven years, Sonia Gandhi had refused to take over the reigns of the Indian National Congress. This was also the period when for the first time in many decades that no member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was not associated with the Congress Party. Sonia Gandhi stepped into politics and took over the party’s reigns only when the Congress was ousted from power at the Centre and there seemed no other leader who could rejuvenate the party. At that time, the fortunes of the Congress had nosedived. At that time, no one thought this novice in politics would do wonders for the country’s oldest political party.
Soon after taking over the party’s leadership, Sonia had to eat humble pie when she staked the claim to form the government in 1999 despite not having the requisite majority numbers. The issue of her ‘foreign origin’ raised by her party’s leaders themselves further made things complicated for her. Sonia started proving her leadership skills after 1999 when her party returned to power in Maharashtra in alliance with the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party which had broken away from her party only six months ago. This alliance and coalition government lasted for 15 long years and this period also marked the ascension of Sonia as the most powerful political leader in the country.
Sonia’s elevation as Congress Chief saw her party winning back power in many states in the country. Her moment of glory came when despite the campaign of ‘India shining’, the Congress returned to power at the Centre in 2004. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had then threatened to tonsure her head and another party leader Uma Bharati had vowed to agitate if Sonia took over as the prime minister. Sonia had then instead crowned
Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister, an action which won her an acclaim. Her choice was also endorsed by the electorate in the country who elected Dr Singh in 2009 for the second consecutive term, an honour earlier won only by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
As she handed over the Congress chief’s post to her son Rahul, Sonia has earned many distinctions to her credit. She has been the party’s chief for a record 19 years, she has named the president of the country and also appointed the prime ministers on two occasions. She has also the distinction of achieving the most difficult task of maintaining cordial relations between her party and her party’s government at the Centre for a decade. During this period, at no stage, she was accused of humiliating Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and interfering in the executive decisions and functioning. This was despite the fact that she was the de facto extra-constitutional power centre in the country. She also needs to be given credit for her political maturity in not anointing her son, Rahul, with prime ministership, even when her party was elected to power for the second consecutive term.
Sonia Gandhi has been at the centre of the national politics for nearly two decades and has enjoyed a remarkable rapport with several political leaders belonging to various national and regional parties. She commands extraordinary respect among all these political parties as is often seen when she convenes meetings of opposition parties. Sonia Gandhi has left behind a rich legacy, unparalleled in some respects even to her most illustrious mother-in-law Indira Gandhi. It will be therefore a huge challenge for Rahul Gandhi to live up to the legacies of his mother and other past Congress presidents.