What makes Sonia Gandhi click?
How is that after nearly two decades that saw the fall, rise and fall of the Congress, the grand old party, facing existential crisis, collectively requested her to lead it?
Sonia has made a huge emotional investment in the party, making her not just a formidable face but also the most acceptable, cutting across all factions, regions and age groups within the party. In 1991, she was not in politics and turned down a Congress Working Committee (CWC) resolution, asking her to lead the party, hours after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on May 21.
In the background: Sonia Gandhi stayed away from politics for years after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. (Source: Reuters)
The Congress was in the midst of General Elections. Chief Election commissioner TN Seshan deferred polls for a month, and when campaigning resumed, about 120 Congress nominees reportedly received some monetary assistance from 10, Janpath.
Most Congress candidates were in desperate need of money, so a note saying, “Wishing you victory. With blessings” was greatly cherished.
Sources close to Sonia had said that she had apparently ‘chanced’ upon a list of party nominees that Rajiv wanted to help and kept party funds for, but there were other credible voices who felt that she alone had taken the lead. Post-victory, many wanted to call on her, to personally thank Sonia — but she declined to meet those who wanted to express gratitude solely for monetary help.
Three years later, deep differences arose between Sonia and PV Narasimha Rao, who was Congress president and Prime Minister.
Chandulal Chandrakar was the All India Congress Committee (AICC) spokesperson when someone from Rao’s side reportedly asked him to criticise Sonia using the AICC platform. Chandrakar was deeply disturbed and almost in tears. Torn between loyalty towards the party and 10, Janpath, Chandrakar recalled how 10, Janpath had helped him with money in elections and defied the party diktat.
SS Ahluwalia was called into action to make critical pronouncements.
Incidentally, this was not the sole instance of an apolitical Sonia showing political acumen.
When Sanjay Gandhi died in June 1980, a tussle for succession erupted between Maneka and Rajiv Gandhi.
Dynasty's perils: A succession war erupted in the Gandhi family after the death of Sanjay Gandhi. (Source: India Today)
Indira was in a dilemma as she had tremendous sympathy for Sanjay’s young widow. A group of 50 MPs, led by Shivraj Patil subsequently, called on Indira Gandhi, asking for Rajiv to don the political hat. Patil was reportedly backed by Sonia. Patil remained Sonia’s favourite throughout the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years when he was made Union Home Minister, despite losing in the Lok Sabha and he almost made it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan when ally Left parties forced Sonia to opt for another Patil, Pratibha, for the President’s post.
The task before Sonia now is extremely difficult.
As interim party chief, she has to restore a semblance of unity and reinforce a belief that the Congress is capable of standing on its own. Some of her biggest problems come more from within than outside.
The presence of Rahul Gandhi as a somewhat edgy and angry politician (angry with a section of the Congress leaders aka 'old guard') is not a happy sight. When Indira Gandhi had taken over as AICC chief in 1959, Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had remarked that it was not a great idea to be facing the Congress president at the breakfast table every day, every morning — Sonia has to face her predecessor and possible successor every day.
As mother, daughter and son, the Gandhi trio have the best of relations — but as party colleagues of consequence, the interim chief, former AICC president and AICC general secretary may have different views on key party appointments, strategy, alliances and a range of political issues.
Aid or impediment? Can Sonia use Rahul and Priyanka to pull the Congress out of its current crisis? (Source: India Today)
While it is true that the Congress has a rich history of Nehru-Gandhi family members working as a ‘pair’, finding synergy and achieving momentum will come under public scrutiny.
From 1974-80, Sanjay did not opt for a formal post in the Congress except for a brief stint as AICC general secretary — but he was considered at par with Indira in many organisational and administrative matters. In fact, weeks before he died in a fatal air crash in June 1980, associate Ram Chandra Rath was viewing Sanjay as party president. Rath used to say, “Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru became AICC leaders at a very young age. So if the party elects him president, it's perfectly democratic. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Sanjay’s brother Rajiv became AICC general secretary in 1983 when Indira was PM. He was given a room at 24, Akbar Road, next to Indira. Rajiv's words mattered and most ministers in Indira’s cabinet were often seen waiting outside his office. Sonia’s own functional relationship with Rahul between 2006 and 2014 saw a clear demarcation when UPA ministers, other than those belonging to Team Rahul (the younger lot like Ajay Makan, RPN Singh, Milind Deora and Sachin Pilot) were not encouraged to call on him.
It will therefore be interesting to see how Sonia would use Rahul and Priyanka’s talent to stage a great comeback.
Both the old guard and the younger lot are looking at Sonia as some sort of arbitrator to impart justice.
Would she dissolve CWC and hold polls? In such a scenario, would both Rahul and Priyanka contest or find a place? There are too many questions begging an instant response.
Sonia’s own and trusted style of 'thanda karke khao' (let things cool down) would not work as there is no luxury of time.