Opinion | Sonia Gandhi @75: Renunciation of power sets her apart

Sonia Gandhi is the longest-serving Congress President in the 136-year history of Congress.

Venkat Parsa

Congress President Sonia Gandhi knocked out her critics and opponents, not by violently attacking them, but with a disarming resolve not to become the Prime Minister of India, in 2004. Her decision, made known on May 18, 2004, was in the works for a long time. It was no knee-jerk reaction, but a well-considered Gandhian decision to stay away from power, which, she famously equated with poison.

Sonia Gandhi made such a huge sacrifice, but she did it so quietly, effortlessly and without fanfare attached to it. There can hardly be such a parallel anywhere and in any part of the world.

Clearly, Sonia Gandhi did not want to turn herself into another Mary Tudor, the Bloody Mary, of England. Sonia Gandhi was very clear in her mind that she did not want to be the cause for polarization and sharp divisions in society; choosing, instead, to become a symbol of social harmony and national integration.

MS Education Academy

Primarily, it is her renunciation of power that makes her stand apart when for the sake of power, there are those who resort to riots, to communal carnage, to mobs lynching, besides turning into merchants of death, in order to achieve polarization for political ends.

There is the Indian tradition of the Bahu coming from anywhere; once she is married into the family, she becomes part of the family. That is why her foreign origins was never an issue with her. She got married on Indian soil, she lost her suhaag in India and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi breathed her last in her lap. Her credentials of being Indian to the core are widely recognized and admired.

Scripting history, she showed that power, pelf and position alone do not constitute politics. Politics is a means to achieve maximum good for the maximum number of people; and all along, she has been diligently working on this maxim, as her record bears out.

If she was not into politics, then perhaps she would have turned into a Mother Teresa. Such is her personal commitment to social service. In fact, she virtually packed the National Advisory Council (NAC) that she headed during the tenure of the Congress-led UPA Government from 2004 to 2014, with activists like Farah Naqvi, Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, among others.

Her act of renunciation of power is perhaps rooted in the national cultural and civilizational ethos of India. Thereby she acquired the larger-than-life stature.

Sonia Gandhi may be the first-ever, at least in recent times, to have willingly and voluntarily given up power. This assumes significance in the backdrop of people wading their way to power, even through bloodshed; for such is the lure of power.

Symbol of Indian Ethos

India has the unique and unrivaled distinction of worshipping not the person of pelf or position, or power, but the person of renunciation. In the Ramayan, King Dasharat, the lord of all that he surveyed, stands up to welcome Sage Vishwamitra, who has renounced the worldly ways; and, it is not vice-versa.

Sonia Gandhi symbolized Indian cultural and civilizational ethos. For instance, the Ramayan presents the ideal of renunciation through the persona of Lord Ram. Following morning is His coronation. But King Dasharat, at the behest of Kaikeyi, asks Him to give up coronation and to go away into the forests; which He willingly and happily does. That was an Ideal, but Sonia Gandhi did it in Reality.

Renunciation of Power was born out of her inner-most burning desire to show to the people the Gandhian way of politics. It is not so much a pursuit of power, as it is a way of living by the ideas and ideals of democracy, secularism, socialism and ensuring social justice to all and especially to the vulnerable sections of society.

In fact, Sonia Gandhi had made up her mind that Prime Ministership was not her way or end; it was neither her ambition nor her goal. Her position was clear, despite the fact that she was the electorate’s top choice for the post of Prime Minister. Indeed, the mandate in 2004 was secured by Congress under the stewardship of Sonia Gandhi.

It is a little-known fact that after the Congress impressive win in the General Election in 2004, the Rashtrapati Bhavan had even readied the customary Letter of Invite to Sonia Gandhi to form the Government. But it had to be redrafted after Sonia Gandhi told the then President A P J Abdul Kalam that she was declining the post, and, instead, by virtue of her popular mandate, she was nominating Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister of India.

Thrice Rejected the Crown

Thrice the crown was offered to her and thrice did she turn it down.

First time was in the wake of the horrendous and tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. Then, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) hurriedly but unanimously elected her Congress President in the midst of the  ongoing parliamentary elections, which meant that she would be automatically the Prime Minister soon after the polls. Turning down the offer, she wanted P V Narasimha Rao to be elected the Congress President and later the Prime Minister.

Second time was in 1994, when Arjun Singh led a coup against P V Narasimha Rao. In order to dislodge him, Arjun Singh prepared the ground for Sonia Gandhi to take over as Prime Minister; but she declined.

Third time was in 2004, when no power under the sun could stop her from becoming Prime Minister, if only she chose to be; but voluntarily, on her own volition, she stepped back, which had a Gandhian message packed into it.

In her speech in the Central Hall of Parliament on May 18, 2004, Sonia Gandhi declared, “Throughout these past six years that I have been in politics, one thing has been clear to me. And that is, as I have often stated, that the post of Prime Minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice. Today, that voice tells me, I must humbly decline this post. You have unanimously elected me your leader. In doing so, you have reposed your faith in me. It is this faith that has placed me under tremendous pressure to reconsider my decision. Yet, I must abide by the principles, which have guided me all along. Power, in itself, has never attracted me, nor has the position been my goal. My aim has always been to defend the secular foundation of our nation and the poor of our country — the creed sacred to Indiraji and Rajivji.”

Longest-Serving Cong President

Congress President Sonia Gandhi has created a record in the annals of the Indian National Congress. She has the unparalleled and unrivaled distinction of serving as Congress President for over two decades. She first took over on March 6, 1998, and continued in the post till 2017 and again from 2019, till date, she remains a hands-on Congress President, who is in complete command of the situation.

Sonia Gandhi is the third woman of foreign origins to be the Congress President, after Annie Besant and Nellie Sengupta; and fifth woman to hold the post, after Annie Besant, Nellie Sengupta, Sarojini Naidu and Indira Gandhi.

Sensing simmering Opposition to her becoming Prime Minister, owing to her foreign origins, Sonia Gandhi drew her own red-lines that she never crossed, thus respecting sentiments even of her critics.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi, turning 75 on December 9, 2021, stands apart for her striking achievements and, that, too, in a short span of a little over two decades of her political career.

Entering politics late, at the age of 51 years, she played a stellar role in reviving Congress. In such a short span of time of just two decades, Sonia Gandhi has come up with some very spectacular achievements.

Stepping into the political arena in 1997, in order to salvage a shipwrecked Congress under Sitaram Kesari, when the party was all breaking up, she had one-point agenda. That was to rescue the Congress, once led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, from disintegration, and bring it back on to the national centre stage. She galvanized the cadres and rallied the party to bring it back to power, which she did in 2004. She took it upon herself as her moral and historical responsibility. But becoming Prime Minister was not on her mind.

Panchmarhi Declaration

Soon after taking over as Congress President on March 6, 1998, Sonia Gandhi organized a Brainstorming Session, or Chintan-Bhaitak, at Panchmarhi, which came out with the Panchmarhi Declaration on September 6, 1998.

The Panchmarhi Declaration demanded the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament on the basis of a broad-based consensus among all political parties. But, the Government of the day, never heeded her voice of sanity.

The Panchmarhi Declaration stated, “Commits itself to the substantial enhanced representation of women at all elections of the party organization and in the distribution of tickets for elections to the State Assemblies and Parliament.”

The Women’s Reservation Bill, providing for 33 per cent Reservation for Women in State Legislatures and Parliament was introduced in Rajya Sabha, so that the Bill does not lapse with the dissolution of Lok Sabha and got in passed the Constitution Amendment Bill, with the requisite two-thirds majority, in the Upper House of Parliament.

Taking up the role of political management of the Coalition Government, Sonia Gandhi made sure that the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre acquires certain character of its own.

Rights-Based Architecture

As the ruling UPA Chairperson and Chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC), she ushered in a string of Rights-based measures. Each of these measures were guaranteed by an Act of Parliament.

These included the Forest Rights Act, which seeks to ensure land tenure, livelihood and food security of the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is a major social security measure that aims to guarantee the Right to Work.

The National Food Security Act aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

The Right to Education Act seeks to promote and spread education among the people.

The Land Acquisition Act seeks to regulate the land acquisition and lays down procedures and rules for granting compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement to the affected persons. 

The Aajeevika Mission seeks to organize rural poor women into Self-Help Groups. These women are given training and then they are given access to Bank credit so that they improve their livelihoods.

Combating Corruption

Sonia Gandhi outlined how she believed the party can intensify the battle against corruption. The first step taken by her soon after the Congress-led UPA Government came to power was the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which armed the common man in the fight against corruption. With the RTI, coupled with the introduction of Aadhar, she laid the foundation for a credible architecture to fight corruption. This solid work of hers far outweighs the sloganeering of the Opposition.

At the AICC Plenary Session in Burari in 2010, Sonia Gandhi unveiled an Action Plan to confront, combat and root out corruption. She came up with a four-pronged Blueprint to combat the menace of corruption. One, fast-tracking of cases of corruption by public servants; two, full transparency in procurements and contracts; three, giving up Discretionary Powers by Ministers; and four, open, competitive systems for exploiting natural resources. No other leader could bring to bear such clarity of thought on the issue of fighting corruption.

Sonia Gandhi said, “First, there is merit in instituting a new system of fast-tracking all cases that concern corruption by public servants, including politicians. Such cases drag on interminably and undermine public confidence and trust. Why can’t we put in place systems that bring corruption cases to closure in a defined time frame? This would bring the guilty to book quickly and clear those unfairly charged. Second, we must ensure, through legislation and clear procedures, full transparency in public procurement and contracts. It is the duty of the administration to ensure that there is no subversion of due process. And should it come to pass, whistle-blowers must be protected. Third, we have ample evidence that all discretionary powers, particularly in land allocation breed corruption. I would like all Congress Chief Ministers and Ministers at both the Centre and States, to set an example by reviewing and relinquishing such powers. Fourth, we need an open, competitive system of exploiting natural resources. This is something we promised in our 2009 Election Manifesto and it has now assumed much greater urgency.”

She further pointed out, “Congressmen and women holding office must not allow any doubt about their probity and integrity. It ill-becomes representatives of a Party, claiming to speak for the poor, to indulge in greed, extravagance and luxury. Simplicity, restraint and austerity must be our chosen way. We cannot make this a law. But in a country where poverty is still widespread, let us at least have the moral sensibility to avoid vulgar displays of wealth and waste.”

Idea of India

Sonia Gandhi has awed admirers and adversaries alike. You can agree with her or disagree with her, but you can never ignore her. This is the reason that despite her keeping a low profile, there has been so much media attention on her. She has always been quiet but never compromised on her cherished ideals.

On her Idea of India, on Democracy, Secularism, Socialism and Equity and Social Justice, especially the vulnerable sections of society, she never compromised.

Her single-point agenda has been to safeguard the nationally-cherished Ideal of Secularism.  Sonia Gandhi stepped into politics, at a time when Secularism was under a grave threat and stood her ground.

Secularism is not new to India but is an intrinsic part of Indian cultural and civilizational values. It has come down to us from the times of Ashoka, through the times of Mughal Emperor Akbar and, in our own times, of Mahatma Gandhi, who espoused the cause of Hindu-Muslim Unity.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru describes Akbar as the Father of Indian Nationalism because Akbar was the first to recognize Hindu-Muslim Unity as the basis of Indian Nationhood. Mahatma Gandhi underscored the importance of Hindu-Muslim Unity by extending support to the Khilafat Movement.

In our own times, Sonia Gandhi was quick to realize that the Indian political edifice rests on secularism and religious equality. Sonia Gandhi breathed new life into the battle to safeguard Secularism when it was faced with the gravest threat.

Her steadfast fight for the Secular Ideal is critical, especially when people seem to betray a tendency to move away from liberal values. Sonia Gandhi bears out by her personal example that there is no room for hate in the heart of a deeply religious person.

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