Even as the Opposition voices grew hysterical, a sombre meeting was underway at 10, Janpath, in the afternoon on 17 May. It would dramatically change the contours of the UPA government – and its leadership.

“It must have been around 2 pm. I think it was just before a meeting of the senior leaders was to take place,’ Natwar Singh told this writer. ‘I was trying to contact Manmohan Singh. They said he is at 10, Janpath...I went there to find him...When I arrived, they (the secretaries) said, ‘Aap andar jaaiye (You can go in)’.” As a Gandhi family acolyte, he had easy access to the Gandhi household.

“She (Sonia) was sitting there on the sofa...Manmohan Singh and Priyanka (were there as well). Suman Dubey came shortly thereafter. Sonia Gandhi was looking distraught...Then Rahul came in and said in front of all of us, ‘I will not let you become prime minister. My father was assassinated, my Dadi was assassinated. In six months, you will be killed’.” Rahul threatened to take an extreme step if Sonia did not listen to him. “This was no ordinary threat,” recalled Natwar Singh, “Rahul is a strong-willed person. He gave Sonia 24 hours to decide.”

“Sonia was visibly agitated and in tears after Rahul said that he was prepared to ‘take any possible step to prevent his mother’ from taking up the prime ministership.”

There was a shocked silence in the room.

“What could you say? It was a very difficult 15 to 20 minutes. And they were very tense.” Manmohan Singh was speechless. “Priyanka did say something like ‘Rahul is against it, and he is capable of doing anything’.” “We asked Sonia to go inside. And said we would sort out matters,” Natwar Singh recalled.

“It was Rahul’s threat to do something drastic that made Sonia Gandhi change her mind. Basically her son made the decision for her.” Natwar Singh said. He added. “As a mother it was impossible for her to ignore Rahul.” Atal Bihari Vajpayee had also advised Sonia not to accept the prime ministership. Soon after she was elected as the leader of the CPP, the two of them spoke to each other, and Sonia sought his “ashirwad”. By now, she was being seen as the next prime minister of India.

Vajpayee congratulated her and said, “You have my ashirwad in abundance.” And then he added, “Don’t take the prize. You will divide the country and could end up straining the loyalty of the civil services.” Vajpayee was close enough to Sonia to be able to speak to her so frankly – and at a time when she was riding high, having emerged as the victor. Though they were opponents, they enjoyed a cordial relationship all through. When the parliament building was attacked in December 2001, Sonia had immediately called up Vajpayee to find out if he was safe and all right. He was touched by her gesture – and many saw it as a sign that “India’s democracy was safe”.

That Manmohan Singh had been called to the meeting with Rahul was significant. He was the only person present, besides the immediate family, and Suman Dubey, who was a family friend – until Natwar Singh arrived there accidentally on his mission to find Manmohan Singh. It was clear that Sonia Gandhi wanted all those present to know about her decision and learn about Rahul’s feelings directly from him. Manmohan Singh’s presence at the meeting showed that by then Sonia had made up her mind to appoint him prime minister.

As things were to turn out, Rahul’s fear for his mother’s life, which made her give up the country’s premiership, having come within grasping distance of it, brought her acceptance in the party and in the country – as nothing else could have done. For all her foreign origins, she was to become the longest-serving party chief, the Congress Party’s helmswoman for 22 years – and the tallest in the party when she stepped down in 2022.

There are many political dynasties around the world. But there was none parallel to the Nehru–Gandhi family, Natwar Singh was to point out years later. Seven members of the family ruled or wielded power and influence of an unprecedented kind over a large country for over a century – Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi, with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra shaping up (at the time of writing) for a political role as well.

Sonia’s decision to spurn the country’s prime ministership made this Turin-born woman of Italian origin the longest link in that chain, not as executive head of government but as the president of India’s grand old party – and as the power behind Manmohan Singh’s premiership.

Soon after the turbulent exchange with Rahul, Sonia walked out of the room. She was slated to meet senior party leaders whom she had called to 10, Janpath that afternoon. She was accompanied by Manmohan Singh and Natwar Singh. Among those waiting to see her were Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, Ghulam Nabi Azad, ML Fotedar, Ahmed Patel, and others. “I have requested Dr Manmohan Singh to take over as prime minister,” she told the assembled group.

There was a stunned silence.

“I am grateful,” Manmohan Singh finally said, feebly. “But I cannot accept. I don’t have the mandate.”

Knowing that Sonia Gandhi’s mind was made up, Natwar Singh interjected at this point, “Manmohan Singhji has no right to say ‘No’ because the person who has the mandate is transferring it to him.”

Natwar Singh added: “I got dirty looks from Pranab Mukherjee.”

Besides those inside the house, many Congress MPs were waiting outside. Word had got around that Sonia Gandhi might not take up prime ministership. In the 44°C heat, politicians and members of the media had been waiting restlessly for hours. Finally, Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh emerged from the bungalow. They told everyone present that Sonia Gandhi would be meeting the president in Rashtrapati Bhavan the next day. Many sighed with relief; they thought she had decided to stake her claim to form the government.

That morning Sonia Gandhi had called Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni separately to inform them about her decision not to take up the prime ministership. Patel and Soni were her political secretaries, though often at loggerheads. Sonia told Patel that she did not want the new government to get weakened by the fierce opposition to her foreign origins. Patel, who would go on to wield enormous power in the years that followed (Sonia came to depend on him heavily), tried to dissuade her – unsuccessfully. She also informed Janardan Dwivedi, her politically-savvy Hindi speechwriter about her decision.

Ambika Soni spoke in an idiom Sonia could relate to. With her husband in the foreign service Soni had travelled the world before Indira Gandhi spotted her and made her chief of the Youth Congress during the Emergency years. Such was the comfort level that Sonia enjoyed with her, that when they were travelling together, Ambika could walk into Sonia’s room even when she had her hair in rollers! Realizing that Sonia could not be persuaded, Soni did not even try to get her to change her mind. “You must do it in a way that it is remembered by posterity,” she told Sonia.

Sonia had “drawn up” a “matter-of-fact” statement with Ahmed Patel, about her decision not to become prime minister. Given the hectic pace of events since the results, she had not had a moment to think of what she would say. “You should formulate something which will strike an emotional chord with people,” Sonia suggested.

I received a call from Sonia Gandhi on the 17th morning – in response to a request to speak to her. As I congratulated her, she began to dwell on the problems the BJP would create for her if she became PM, which could lead to violence in the country. Though her exact words elude me, she said something like, “They are going to make my functioning very difficult.” When I put down the receiver, it suddenly struck me that she had sounded sombre, not upbeat. And I wondered why she was referring to the difficulties ahead in a moment of victory. The conversation was to come back to me 36 hours later when she announced her decision not to accept the prime ministership.

Sonia Gandhi had deputed Congress functionaries to talk to a few prominent leaders about her decision before she made it public. On May 17, Natwar Singh and ML Fotedar had headed to see VP Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav. VP listened quietly when they told him that Sonia now wanted to make Manmohan Singh the prime minister. “I have no objection,” VP told his visitors. He told me in the course of a conversation not long afterwards, “Her children did not want her to become prime minister, they feared for her life.”

CPI (M) leader Somnath Chatterjee, confirmed to me what VP Singh had said – that Sonia’s decision to give up the prime ministership was “because of her children”. “We had agreed on her becoming prime minister, what can we do if her children feared for her life and did not want her to become PM?” That evening of May 17, she invited the leaders of parties supporting the Congress Party to 10, Janpath, to tell them of her decision – and nominate Manmohan Singh as prime minister. She did not give the assembled leaders any reason for her decision.

“It was a very difficult meeting,” Natwar Singh recalled. The leaders were very upset. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Yadav went ballistic. “Why did you not tell us earlier? We have learnt about it from TV,” he stormed. Harkishan Singh Surjeet tried to dissuade Sonia. Ram Vilas Paswan, head of the Bihar-based Lok Jan Shakti Party, said they had given their support to Sonia Gandhi, not to someone else.

By then, the media had picked up the uncertainty that surrounded Sonia Gandhi’s elevation as PM. West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, who was in Delhi that day, expressed “disappointment (with her decision).”

“The Left expected her to become prime minister,” said Prakash Karat later. “It was a surprise to us that it would be Manmohan Singh. It was a fait accompli presented to her party, the UPA, and the supporting Left parties.”

Those present at the evening meeting were so upset that it was decided she defer her decision till the next day. However, Sonia Gandhi remained unyielding. The mother in her had overpowered the politician.

Excerpted with permission from How Prime Ministers Decide, Neerja Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.