On December 9 this year, Congress President Sonia Gandhi steps into her 75th year of her birth, Amrit Utsav, or Platinum Jubilee year. Significantly, Sonia Gandhi has set a record of being the longest-serving Congress President for two decades in the history of India’s Grand Old Party.
Sonia Gandhi is the third woman of foreign origins, after Annie Beasant and Nellie Sengupta, and the fifth woman, besides Sarojini Naidu and Indira Gandhi, to adorn the post of Congress President.
As Sonia Gandhi prepares to step down from the post, after her two-decade-long tenure as Congress President, it provides an occasion for looking back at her enormous contribution to Indian politics.
Primarily, her singular contribution has been to fight for and to struggle to uphold the Congress Idea of India. This, especially, at a time, when it is under a severe assault in our times. She provided leadership in the relentless fight to safeguard this priceless heritage of the Freedom Struggle, which actually represents the 5,000-year-old Indian civilizational ethos.
Sonia Gandhi hails from a non-political background. At the same time, she never nurtured any political ambitions, either.
Studying English language course at Trinity College in Cambridge University in England, she worked part-time as waitress in a restaurant. But, she never flaunted her humble origins. Another hallmark is her Christian compassion, coupled with forgiveness, which makes her stand apart in the cunning and cut-throat world of politics.
By sheer dint of training of mind and intellect, her broad outlook and her own personal stature and standing, she rose to the level of getting Presidential Invite to form the Government in 2004, which she politely, but firmly, declined. That speaks volumes of her integrity of character.
Never one to hanker after power, she only used it to empower the people; therein lies her genius.
Power as Poison
Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of power, by declining the post of Prime Minister, puts her on high moral pedestal. History is replete with instances of bloody fratricidal wars for the sake of throne. Sonia made such a big sacrifice with such ease and so simply. Not many can eschew the temptation of power, as she has done by her personal example.
Rahul Gandhi once famously revealed how, on the eve of his assuming office of Congress Vice-President in 2013, Sonia Gandhi warned him that “Power is Poison”. Sardar Patel had once famously remarked at a public meeting in the Fateh Maidan Stadium in Hyderabad in 1948, “Hukumat ek nasha hai” (power is an intoxication).
Significantly, India has a time-honoured tradition of respecting, not those with acquisitions and aggrandizement, but those who voluntarily give up pelf and power. It is the Saint and the Sage, not so much the Warrior and the King, who is revered in India.
In our own times, Mahatma Gandhi could have had any post for his asking, in Independent India. Instead, Gandhiji walked away from the trappings of power.
Sonia Gandhi chose to tread the hallowed path in the best Indian traditions of steering clear of power politics. She redefined politics as a means of service and social transformation.
She showed disinclination for power, even in the wake of the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. At the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, as Indira Gandhi’s body was being embalmed, she tried to dissuade her husband Rajiv Gandhi from accepting the post of Prime Minister, though she ultimately bowed to the decision of her husband.
Turned Down Thrice
Sonia Gandhi is accused of running after power. But the fact is that she turned down the post of Prime Minister thrice, in 1991, 1994 and again in 2004.
After the ghastly and horrendous assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) unanimously elected Sonia Gandhi as the Congress President, which was the surest way to become the Prime Minister, in 1991.
Anyone else would have easily and unhesitatingly seized the moment and grabbed the opportunity to come to power. But Sonia Gandhi responded differently, by politely, but firmly, declining the post.
Sonia Gandhi facilitated the election of P V Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister, who was the senior-most leader and a trusted confidante and legatee of Rajiv Gandhi.
A second opportunity came her way in 1994, when senior leader Arjun Singh raised the banner of revolt, walking out of the Congress. The rebels wanted her to step in and assume the mantle of Prime Minister. She not only resolutely refused it, but wholeheartedly backed the continuance of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.
In the General Election in 2004, Sonia Gandhi led the Congress back to power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Coalition. Sonia Gandhi was elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP).
Ironically, Sharad Pawar, who quit the Congress on grounds of the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi in 1999, proposed her name for election as the leader of the UPA Parliamentary Party in 2004, after which she got the Presidential Invite to be sworn-in as Prime Minister and to form the Government.
Responding to the voice of her conscience, Sonia Gandhi chose to decline the Invite to be sworn-in as Prime Minister.
Renunciation of Power did not mean her retirement into seclusion. She played an active role in not only pushing for major legislations and schemes, but played a major role of political management by presiding over the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
When Mid-Term Election was forced on the country within one year of the Vajpayee Government in 1999, Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised the banner of revolt against the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi.
Rejecting this entire thesis, the Congress and the Country rallied behind Sonia Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi entered into wedlock and became a widow on the Indian soil. Her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi died in her lap. Sonia Gandhi was an Indian to the core. Easily one of the greatest Philosopher-Statesman of our times, D S Radhakrishnan, described an Indian not one who is merely a domicile, but even one subscribes to the values and vision of India.
Significantly, Sonia Gandhi never had any trace of bitterness against her detractors. Setting aside her pride, passion and prejudice, she was ready to do business with them, in the best interests of the Congress.
As daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi and widow of Rajiv Gandhi, she is the heiress to the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, which she has most admirably carried forward.
Primarily, she helped revive and rejuvenate the Congress at the most critical juncture, reassert the Congress Idea of India and reestablish the majesty of Socialism and of the Secular Ideal and, that, too, in the extremely polarizing times.
Sonia’s Anti-Corruption Plan
Sonia Gandhi will be best remembered for her landmark contribution in the Combat against Corruption in the country. Apart from ushering in Right to Information Act and Whistleblower’s Protection Act, she brought in Aadhar and introduced Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT).
This was a carefully thought-out strategy for cutting down on the scope for Corruption. Hers was a more practical approach to tackling the menace of Corruption, than merely sloganeering about it, as the Opposition is accustomed to. Sardar Patel once said, “Blaming others is the easiest thing to do. Working hard to make a difference is the toughest thing to do. The lazy normally go for the first option. I don’t.” Sonia Gandhi seems to echo this principle.
In her Congress Presidential Address at the AICC Plenary in Burari in December, 2010, Sonia Gandhi unveiled a Blueprint to Combat Corruption. She mooted e-tendering and e-procurement, besides suggesting giving up of Discretionary Quota, in order to check Corruption.
In her Burari Address, 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 went on to add, “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.”
As Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Advisory Council (NAC), Sonia Gandhi spearheaded several landmark initiatives that contributed to transformational changes being brought about in India. There is a missionary zeal in her, when she pushes for such initiatives that help the weaker and vulnerable sections of society.
Right to Information, 2005; Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005; Forest Rights Act, 2006; Right to Education Act, 2009; Land Acquisition Act, 2013; and National Food Security Act, 2013; are among her notable initiatives.
Sonia Gandhi pushed for a number of Schemes like Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana for Rural Electrification; Indira Awas Yojana for Housing for Poor in Rural Areas; Rajiv Awas Yojana for Housing for Urban Poor; and Aajeevika Mission, or National Livelihoods Mission for Women, where women are given training and access to Bank loans is also facilitated.
Sonia Gandhi stepped into politics at a time when the Congress was on the verge of disintegration, to the point of the virtual decimation of Grand Old Party, with all leaders leaving what seemed to be then a sinking ship.
Congress is the party that spearheaded the Independence Movement, freeing the nation from colonial yoke. The Congress also was in the vanguard of national social economic and political reconstruction and national cultural renaissance.
When the Congress, and all that it stands for and represents, was faced with the gravest challenge to its very survival and existence, Sonia Gandhi felt duty-bound to step in to save the party and all that it stands for.
On December 29, 1997, Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign for the party in the General Election in 1998. Accompanied by Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi launched her campaign, with an emotional pitch, from the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.
There was no looking back. Though she did not succeed in leading the party to power, she did not lose heart. On March 6, 1998, Sonia Gandhi was elected the Congress President. On March 14, 1998, she took over as Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP), nominating Sharad Pawar as Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Dr Manmohan Singh as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha.
Quietly she set about the task of Congress Revival in the country. Emerging as a focal point around whom the party and people rallied, she brought back rebels like Arjun Singh, N D Tiwari and Madhav Rao Scindia to revive the Congress. In September, 1998, she organized the Chintan-Bhaitakh or the Brainstorming Session in Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh that crystallized the party stand on crucial issues facing the nation.
Her first electoral test came in the Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in 1998. Sonia Gandhi brought the Congress to power in all the three States, which was quite a feat.
Though she failed to bring the party to power at the Centre, she did succeed in expanding the footprint of the Congress across the country by bringing the party to power from Kerala to Jammu & Kashmir.
In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won both seats of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and Bellary in Karnataka, establishing herself as a leader with pan-Indian appeal and acceptability. She led from the front the Opposition against the RSS and its political affiliates, walking in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi.
Ahead of the General Election in 2004, Sonia Gandhi walked down to the residence Ram Vilas Paswan to seek his support for stitching up a coalition. Setting aside all pride and prejudice, she up the phone to DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi to forge electoral alliance. Brick by brick she built the UPA Coalition with the Congress at the head, to bring the part back to power. In 2009, as well, she brought the Congress-led UPA Government back to power.
As she prepares to pass on the baton to the GenNext, Sonia Gandhi will be remembered for her stellar role in saving the Congress and all that it stands for at a critical and crucial juncture of Indian history.
Views expressed are personal
Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.