A political leader with social conscience
She remains a source of inspiration for lakhs of Congress workers at a rather tumultuous time in Indian politics
"My responsibility at this critical time is to provide India with a secular government that is strong and stable," said the then 57-year-old Smt. Sonia Gandhi before stunned members of the Congress at the Central Hall of Parliament in 2004, following the party's resounding victory in the general elections. With these words, Mrs. Gandhi -- who in the proceeding decade would become an inspiration to crores of women across the country -- humbly declined the post of Prime Minister despite the pleas by us to change her mind. Knowing well that electoral success was a battle half won and that the country needed to reap the dividends of its demographic potential with good economic policies, Mrs. Gandhi chose former Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to lead the nation -- a move that heralded a new chapter in India's growth story.
Smt. Sonia Gandhi entered public life at a particularly difficult period in the history of the Indian National Congress, and she faced an immediate challenge to rejuvenate a party disunited in years following the assassination of India's former premier Sh. Rajiv Gandhi.
Over the next six years, she worked tirelessly to strengthen Congress's organisational strength and unite parties that shared INC's ideology, at a time when ideological contradiction in political alliances had become a norm. With Mrs. Gandhi at the helm, the party performed its role as an opposition competently, both within Parliament and on the streets, and set up realistic goals for a political rebound.
As a leader of the opposition in the Vajpayee years, Mrs. Gandhi ensured the party doesn't lose its political dominance following setbacks in the 1998 and 1999 general elections. The revival of the Congress Party at a time when the country was facing the growing challenges of the right-wing forces under the BJP-led central government, is a story for the ages.
I was fortunate to accompany her when she traversed length and breadth of the country in the run up to 2004 elections. What struck me was her ability to empathise and connect with people. In one state, she pointed out to me that a group of people of particular ethnicity we were interacting with, did not belong to that place and are from another state. On being further prodded, as to how she was able to discern, she said from the way they spoke. I was awestruck.
The result was a resounding victory of Congress in the 2004 general elections, following which Mrs. Gandhi took the backseat and let Dr. Manmohan Singh be the architect of India's growth story.
Only a leader with a deep social conscience as Smt. Sonia Gandhi could create the framework of social legislations for India's poor people amidst an overwhelming consensus for pro-business economic policies, both in the opposition and within the party. Mrs. Gandhi constituted a National Advisory Council and formulated policies such as National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission, the Right to Information Act, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, The National Rehabilitation Policy, and Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. The reforms ushered in by the UPA under Mrs. Gandhi's presidentship have transcended political affiliations. For instance, MNREGA, a social security measure passed by the UPA-I on August 23, 2005 has been accepted with great reluctance by Modi-led central government.
Mrs. Gandhi remained a voice of social justice and hope for millions of poor people and her policies helped the government lift a staggering 273 million Indians out of multi-dimensional poverty between 2005 and 2015 -- the golden era of the country's economic growth. Little could the economists and policymakers who maligned social legislations like the MNREGA envision at that time how these very policies would come to the rescue of the downtrodden during the economic recession caused by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The flagship rural relief programme gave employment to lakhs of migrant workers left jobless by a stringent lockdown announced as part of the measures to contain the pandemic. "When ridicule fails to kill a movement, it begins to command respect," Mrs. Gandhi wrote in an article published in a leading Indian daily, quoting from Freedom's Battle, a collection of Mahatma Gandhi's speeches and essays. "... There was no better example of this in Independent India than MGNREGA."
With such policies, the Congress party won over a large section of the rural and urban underclass and the party retained power at the Centre after winning 206 seats in the 2009 general elections -- a victory credited to Mrs. Gandhi's commitment to pro-people reforms. Such rights-based legislations still remain the towering achievements of the UPA era and ensure transparency, accountability, and justice in spite of the present regime's penchant for authoritarian governance.
The Right to Information Act, which remains a crowning glory of Mrs. Gandhi, promotes transparency by allowing citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities. Mrs. Gandhi was personally involved in the drafting of this law before it was passed in Parliament in 2005. The present regime, however, has sought to dilute the act in one way or another.
"It is no secret that the Modi government has seen this remarkable institution as an obstacle to enforcing their majoritarian agenda without being held accountable to people. For the majority of their first term, several of the information commissioners’ offices remained vacant, including that of the Chief Information Commissioner (for 10 months)," Mrs. Gandhi said in a statement, released after the 2019 amendments to the law.
Smt. Sonia Gandhi has never aspired for a post or clung to power, and her selfless commitment to the congress party remains a source of inspiration for lakhs of Congress workers at a rather tumultuous time in Indian politics and the history of our democracy.
The Indian National Congress today remains at the forefront of an ideological battle against the subjugation of our democratic institutions and values in the hands of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and Mrs. Gandhi understands the stakes. "The fight to defend our democracy, our Constitution and the Congress party's ideology begins with being fully prepared to identify and counter false propaganda. We must fight the diabolical campaign of BJP/RSS ideologically. We must do so with conviction and expose their lies before the people if we are to win this battle," she said in a strong-worded statement late last month.
I salute my leader!