Sonia Gandhi: the best bet     

Sonia Gandhi is no stranger to adverse situations. When she became Congress president in 1999, the party was in a state of disarray and she had little time to set the house in order

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Sonia Gandhi’s return as the interim president of the Indian National Congress is timely and prudent as it fills the vacuum left at the top, right before the grand old party goes into the campaign mode for three crucial state Assembly elections slated later this year. Her return is likely to stem the slide in the party, both in terms of desertion from the party’s ranks and electoral results.

Her detractors and critics have tried to label her return to the party’s helm as another proof of the Congress’ practice of dynastic politics. The truth, however, is that the Nehru-Gandhi family has always acted as a cementing glue in the diverse universe of the Congress which welcomes varying views unlike some of its opponents. Sonia Gandhi has steered the Congress out of troubled times before and it is only logical that the party will repose its faith in her able hands.

Also, some people have tried to brand this as a proof of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s failure. The Congress Working Committee resolution, lauding Rahul Gandhi for his leadership role, puts an end to such deductive simplifications.

The fact of the matter is that within a year of assuming the presidency of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, with help from other party leaders, wrested three BJP-ruled states, namely Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In Karnataka, the Congress was back in power in a coalition with JD(S) before the BJP lured and threatened as many as 15 MLAs of the Karnataka Assembly to rebel. In Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s home turf of Gujarat, the Congress gave the BJP a solid run for its money.

Even, in the build-up to the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi was pretty much on the ball till the Pulwama blast happened and the subsequent Balakot air strikes. That gave the BJP the opportunity to brush crucial issues like agrarian distress and unemployment under the carpet and the nation was carried away by a jingoistic macho nationalistic euphoria.

With the Congress presidency’s burden off his shoulders, it will allow the Lok Sabha MP from Wayanad more time to connect with the masses which he is very good at, to re-energise the Congress’ grassroots connect and galvanise the party’s rank and file across India. The Congress must take the onus of protecting the idea of a secular, progressive, inclusive and pluralistic India. There is no one better than Rahul Gandhi to lead that offensive on the ground.

Sonia Gandhi is no stranger to adverse situations. Joining active politics in 1998 after fervent insistence of party leaders, she went on to be elected the party president in 1999, the following year. The party was in a state of disarray and she had little time to set the house in order.

That way, 2019 is not fundamentally different from 1999. The party faces factionalism and desertion as it had faced then. There is a visible schism between the old guards and the young turks. In this situation, an initially reluctant Sonia Gandhi has accepted the role of interim president to unify the party’s rank and file.

After P.V. Narasimha Rao had stepped down as president of the Congress in September 1996, Sitaram Kesri had been appointed as the new president of the party.

The following years were difficult for the party. Kesri’s lack of popular support, both among the party ranks and the masses damaged the party. Kesri’s most controversial act was the sudden withdrawal of support to H.D. Deve Gowda’s United Front government, which led to the fall of the government in April 1997. However, a compromise was reached and the United Front elected I.K. Gujral as the subsequent new leader with continued support from the Congress.

But on November 28, 1997, the Congress withdrew its support from the Gujral government. When no alternative government could be formed, the Lok Sabha was dissolved, paving the way for midterm elections.

The Congress had not adequately prepared for the midterm elections. A number of senior leaders of the party, such as Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and Aslam Sher Khan, openly expressed their displeasure with Kesri’s leadership and quit the party. Several other senior leaders such as Madhavrao Sindhia, Rajesh Pilot, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Arjun Singh, Mamata Banerjee, G. K. Moopanar, P. Chidambaram and Jayanthi Natarajan were in open revolt against incumbent President Sitaram Kesri too.

Much before she became the Congress president, after she decided to campaign for the party in the 1998 midterm polls, Sonia Gandhi had replaced Kesri as the main party campaigner. She attracted huge crowds in her campaign rallies but that was not enough to secure a win. Nonetheless, the Congress did maintain a respectable tally of 141 seats against the BJP’s 182, something poll pundits had not predicted.

Furthermore, Sonia Gandhi’s taking over of the leadership mantle of the party saw the revolt of senior leaders like Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar who were subsequently expelled and went on to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The challenge before Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law and Rajiv Gandhi’s wife was humongous.

Just in April of 1999, the AIADMK withdrew its support from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and it collapsed. Thus within days of becoming the president of the Congress and within a year of her joining active politics, Sonia Gandhi had to shoulder the massive responsibility of leading the party in a General Election. She herself contested Lok Sabha elections from Bellary, Karnataka and Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, her first election. She won both seats but chose to represent Amethi. In Bellary, she defeated veteran BJP leader, Sushma Swaraj, by a handsome margin.

But the Vajpayee government came back, riding on the wave of the euphoria generated by the Kargil War, and the Congress won 114 seats. Sonia Gandhi became the Leader of Opposition in the 13th Lok Sabha.

In the 2004 General Election, Sonia Gandhi launched a nationwide campaign, criss-crossing the country with a massive people connect programme. It stood in massive contrast to the ‘India Shining’ campaign of the BJP-led NDA. She asked the people, “Who is India Shining for?” while the NDA went for a massive media blitz.

When the election results were announced, pollsters and poll pundits were shocked. Sonia Gandhi had led the Congress to the position of the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. On May 16, 2004, Sonia Gandhi was unanimously chosen to lead a 15-party coalition government with the support of the Left, which was subsequently named the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In fact, it was Sonia Gandhi who convinced the Congress leaders to embrace coalition politics, an uncharted territory for the Congress till then. That led to the formation of the government at the Centre.

It was widely expected that she would become the Prime Minister, and the BJP leaders went to town about that, harping on her foreign origin. But Sonia Gandhi stumped them by announcing Dr Manmohan Singh as the one to lead the government.

And, in 2009, Sonia Gandhi led the Congress in securing a massive mandate from the people, securing 206 seats in the Lok Sabha, the biggest tally for any single party since 1991.

So, it is only apt that she has taken over the mantle of leadership when the Congress is reeling from two of its heaviest losses in two successive elections. If anyone can steer the ship out of troubled waters, it is her.

Sonia Gandhi has delivered before as Congress president. She has the experience, the maturity and commands unanimous respect in the party. She is the best bet for the Congress in its hour of crisis.

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