Veteran Left leader Jyoti Basu dismissed her as a “mere housewife”, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Pramod Mahajan compared her to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky whose affair with President Bill Clinton had led to his impeachment, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh once described her as the “Congress party’s Rabri Devi” while Opposition leaders derisively referred to her as the “Noorjahan of Turin”.

But Sonia Gandhi, who took over the reins of the Congress in 1998 when the party was clearly leaderless and adrift, beat the odds and proved the sceptics wrong. She once famously remarked, “They don’t know the stuff I am made of.” Stepping down after 19 years in office, Sonia Gandhi can look back on her tenure with some satisfaction for she has shown that she is indeed made of sterner stuff than her critics gave her credit for. She enjoys the distinction of being the longest serving president of the 132-year-old Congress and for leading it to two consecutive Lok Sabha victories after 15 years in political wilderness.

Besides the fact that she was a political greenhorn when she took over as Congress president, Sonia Gandhi’s biggest handicap was her foreign origin. The Bharatiya Janata Party raised this issue at every possible opportunity so that it was never off the political radar. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government even set up a national commission, headed by former chief justice MN Venkatachalliah, to review the working of the Constitution. It was officially stated that the commission would examine how best the Constitution can respond to the country’s changing needs but the Congress suspected the exercise was meant to introduce amendments to deny a person of foreign origin from holding a constitutional post.

Though Congress cadre were convinced that they needed a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead them, there was also a section that was not comfortable with the idea of a person of foreign origin heading the party. Despite these misgivings, very few were willing to challenge the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. Eventually, it was only Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar who raised a banner of revolt for which they were shown the door.

On her part, Sonia Gandhi made a conscious effort to gain acceptability both within and outside the party in those initial years. In an effort to win over the trust of her party colleagues and to avoid confrontation, she went in for the widest possible consultations with them and, by and large, gave them a free hand in running the organisation. And to gain recognition from the public as a credible leader, she projected herself as the inheritor of Indira Gandhi’s legacy by adopting her style of dressing and campaigning. Well aware that her Christian faith could be held against her and that she would be dubbed anti-Hindu, Sonia Gandhi did the rounds of temples and even took a dip in the Sangam during the Kumbh Mela in 2001.

Sonia Gandhi greets people in May 1999, a year after she became Congress president. (Credit: Pradeep Singh / HT)

Political novice who grew into her job

There is no doubt that the Congress was in poor health when Sonia Gandhi took over as president. It was in power in only four states, the organisation was in shambles and the morale of the cadre had hit an all-time low. Sonia Gandhi had a daunting task before her.

And she did not start on a very promising note. She was persuaded to join other Opposition parties in ensuring the fall of the Vajpayee-led government in 1999 by one vote. Her political immaturity was on display when she told media persons at the Rashtrapati Bhavan that she had the numbers to form the government. “We have 272 and more are coming,” she declared. But to her chagrin, Sonia Gandhi was unable to form the government as Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose party’s support was crucial to get the requisite numbers, decided not to back the Congress. This was further proof that doubts about her foreign origin persisted. To make matters worse, the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha dipped from 151 to 114 seats in the elections necessitated by this fiasco.

Having learnt her first lesson in politics, Sonia Gandhi retreated and used her time in the Opposition to learn the ropes. She gradually grew into her job. The Congress’ fortunes started picking up gradually and it soon had governments in a dozen states. By the time the 2004 Lok Sabha elections arrived, she was ready for the next electoral challenge.

Moment of ‘supreme sacrifice’

The Congress, in the meantime, had dropped its reservations about coalitions and had decided to forge alliances with like-minded parties. Sonia Gandhi took the lead in this matter as she personally reached out to regional leaders including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar despite the Congress’ uneasy relations with these parties in the past.

Sonia Gandhi simultaneously sought to expand the party’s appeal from the garib (poor) to the aam aadmi with the new slogan “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath”. The gamble worked as the newly-minted coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, put together by Sonia Gandhi emerged victorious in 2004 against the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance. However, Sonia Gandhi was denied the opportunity to lead the government as there was a public outcry (manufactured by the BJP) against a foreign-born person from being appointed the country’s prime minister. She put a lid on this controversy when she decided to step aside and instead picked Manmohan Singh for the top job. This act of “supreme sacrifice” promptly elevated Sonia Gandhi’s status, though a persistent and determined BJP quickly unleashed a campaign that the Manmohan Singh-government was remote-controlled by Sonia Gandhi. Despite these attacks, Sonia Gandhi grew in stature with her pro-people initiatives such as the Right to Information Act, the Food Security Act aimed at providing subsidised foodgrains to two-thirds of the population, the rural employment guarantee scheme promising 100 days of employment in a year to all rural households, and farm loan waivers. She was also the glue that kept the disparate partners of the United Progressive Alliance together.

The BJP often accused Sonia Gandhi of being the real power behind the Manmohan Singh-led government. (Credit: PTI)

But Sonia Gandhi’s dream run proved short-lived. After a successful five-year stint in power and a second successive win in 2009, the Congress faced widespread allegations of corruption. The government, too, was seen to be underperforming as the term “policy paralysis” became synonymous with it. Preoccupied with constant firefighting, Sonia Gandhi ignored the party organisation during the decade the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. She ended up paying the price for this neglect when the Congress was reduced to a pitiable 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Today, as she hands over the baton to her son Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president takes on a party that is a pale shadow of its old self and in need of urgent repair. Sonia Gandhi can draw satisfaction from the fact that she has finally succeeded in her mission in installing the Nehru-Gandhi scion as the Congress chief. The Rahul Gandhi era has begun. It now has to be seen how he will lead the Congress.