The curtain has fallen on one era and risen on another.
For more than a decade Sonia Gandhi has been preparing for the day when she could pass the presidentship of the Congress party to her son Rahul to safeguard the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. It finally happened on Saturday (December 16) where she made her last speech as the outgoing Congress president and Rahul his first as the incoming one.
Smt Sonia Gandhi: We all know how the values of our democratic and secular nation are under attack. This is an ethical fight. We should be ready to sacrifice anything for this. Watch the speech:#CongressPresidentRahulGandhi #ThankYouSoniaGandhi pic.twitter.com/dZESaALaNb— Congress (@INCIndia) December 16, 2017
The Amethi MP becomes the sixth of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to hold the post after Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia, who becomes the longest- serving Congress chief after 19 years at the top.
The family itself has headed the 132-year-old outfit for a total of 45 years since patriarch Motilal did almost a century back in 1919. Forty of these years were in the 70 years of Independent India - prompting critics to accuse the Congress of promoting dynastic politics under the garb of elections to the top post.
Though the 47-year old Rahul has been virtually leading the party since his mother’s illness in 2011, and more particularly in the last three years, in formally handing over the reins to him, the 71-year old Sonia has also bequeathed to him the same set of critical challenges she faced when she took charge of the party in 1998.
1) Safeguarding the Nehru-Gandhi legacy which has been attack, particularly by the BJP and other Hindutva forces in recent years.
2) Stemming and reversing the rapid decline in the credibility, image and appeal of the party and its leaders.
3) Galvanizing grassroots workers and recovering the party’s lost social support base.
4) Rebranding, restructuring and revitalising the organisation into a fighting machine that can connect with masses and win elections.
5) Rebuilding the political fortunes of the party that once dominated the polity but has now been reduced to a fringe player in most parts of the country.
The question then is to what extent was Sonia able to deal with the challenges in the two decades she was in politics?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the organisational transfer took place along with the same - or perhaps more - political liabilities that she had inherited.
This is not to say that Sonia did not or could not handle some of these crises in the two decades when she became an MP, leader of Opposition and chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party and National Advisory Council. In many ways, she did and succeeded. But then there was a slide back again.
In the early years after she took over, there were questions whether she would be able to deal with the complex and multiple challenges that would be daunting even for the most seasoned politician. Sonia herself had doubts about her capability.
"Twenty years ago when you elected me as Congress president and I stood up to address you I was nervous and my hands were shaking with fear as to how I would be able to handle the responsibility,’’ she admitted on Saturday.
Her critics saw her as a foreigner and a non-political person who happened to be the daughter-in-law of prime-minister Indira Gandhi and spouse of later-day prime minister Rajiv and who with her accented Hindi and English would not be able to communicate with the masses or speak extempore or impromptu in Parliament or outside. She was ridiculed as "mere housewife", the party’s "Rabri Devi" and a "reader" (of speeches) rather than a leader.
But almost all of them had to eat their words.
No, she did not have the charisma of Nehru, the political astuteness, sharpness and fighting spirit of Indira or the easy charm of Rajiv. But she worked within her limitations and with time combined her tenacity and steely resolve and displayed a surprising flexibility and willingness to learn from her mistakes to try and reach her goal.
She began with a baptism by fire, with three major jolts in her first year in office as party chief.
The first came when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government fell by one vote in April 1999 after Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, as part of an Opposition plan, withdrew support. In an error of judgement, Sonia rushed to claim the required support of 272 MPs to form a government but could not muster the numbers as SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav backed out and threw his lot with those against a foreigner leading the government.
The second was a month later when Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar split the Congress on the issue of her foreign origin and formed the NCP in May.
The third came at the end of the year when under her stewardship the party won only 114 Lok Sabha seats - 37 less than what it had in the outgoing House.
Sonia had hit a new low for the party but she drew some crucial lessons from it. One, the party cannot go it alone in elections. Two, it could not rely on promised support but needed a formal or semi formalised arrangement. And three, it needed to build a popular backing for the party.
She went about this with determination before the 2004 polls. To reach out to the people, she emulated Indira’s mannerisms and style and gave the Congress a pro-poor, pro-people tilt by tweaking her mother-in-law’s emotive slogan of "garibi hatao" slogan with her call of "Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath" as a counter to the BJP-NDA’s "India Shining". She abandoned the Congress’s 1998 Pachmarhi resolution of going it alone in elections. She swallowed the pride of being the single largest party and visited potential allies, including Pawar who had split from the party over her foreign origin. And to dispel any misgivings, she assured them that the leadership issue would be taken up after elections, thereby dropping the first hint that she may not be the first claimant to the job.
Her deft moves and gestures paid dividends. The Congress first coalition government at the Centre came to power in 2004 - and then again in 2009. She enhanced her stature when she renounced the PM’s post and installed Manmohan Singh. In the 10 years the UPA was in power, she was attacked for remote controlling the regime but won support for steering it to waive off farm loans and come up with rights based legislations, including the right to information, education and food security.
But the unravelling, both in government and the party, began soon after which she failed to stop.
The last three years of UPA 2, for instance, were riddled with charges of corruption in high places, particularly among ministers from alliance partners, paralysis in governance and decision-making and the regime’s inability to check inflation and prices. Sonia - who fell ill in 2011 and has not been keeping well since then - kept a discreet distance and both she and the PM appeared to succumb to the need to keep UPA 2 together and afloat for five years. This was quite unlike UPA-I when Singh, subsequently backed by Sonia, readily jettisoned the Left which was opposing the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
The Congress organisation too suffered during this period. The reason here was Sonia’s complete focus on grooming Rahul for the future. The process had begun the day he entered active politics as an MP from Amethi in 2004. As general secretary in 2007, he experimented with elections in frontal organisations which did not quite achieve the desired results. Under her watchful eye, he was elevated as party vice president in 2013 and given a free hand to run the organization which raised apprehensions among the old guard in the party about their role, future and function and, given his track record of uninspiring leadership or ability to win elections for the party, among the workers many of whom began deriding him.
In the 10 years of UPA rule, Sonia also did not focus on strengthening the organisation, particularly in UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu - which account for nearly 200 of the 543 elective Lok Sabha seats and where the party has been marginalised by the BJP and regional or region-based forces. This could partly be because she left the field for the dominant allies in these states to fight the rivals. But in states like Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, where the Congress has been out of power for more than a decade, it has been paying the price of infighting and factionalism.
The result of the perception of a controversy-ridden government at the Centre and a decrepit organisation in elections was that the Congress was beaten to a pulp in the 2014 elections by an aggressive BJP led by prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. It touched a new low: it won just 44 Lok Sabha seats and failed to open an account in 19 states and UTs. And the party lost as many as 27 state elections between 2013, when Rahul began playing a larger role, and 2017.
In a way, the wheel seems to have turned full circle for the Congress. When Sonia began her innings, the party had only three state governments and 141 MPs. Today, as she leaves it to Rahul to rebuild the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, it is in power only in Punjab, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Puducherry and Karnataka, with the Himachal results expected on Monday.
And the party has just 46 Lok Sabha MPs - which makes the 1998 and 1999 tallies of 141 and 114 MPs look impressive.