After Sonia Gandhi stepped down as president of the Indian National Congress this month after an often turbulent 19 years, many have commented on her mixed and bitterly contested political legacy. Some have spoken of the courage and resolve of her character as she fought savage derision to salvage the fortunes of her party and win two major national elections in 2004 and 2009.

Few have remarked on her social contributions, and her commitment to India’s most disadvantaged peoples. On February 28, 1991, Manmohan Singh as finance minister made a historic address to Parliament, appealing to an idea whose time – he was convinced – had come. This marked India’s great leap into neo-liberal reforms, which transformed it fundamentally by displacing the state from the commanding heights of the economy and replacing it with large global private business. The consensus around the fundamentals of this new business-led economic policy has sustained with successive changes of government in the 26 years that have followed. It is only Sonia Gandhi who tried to temper hard market fundamentalism with some compassion and equity, and this I believe is her most valuable and least acknowledged contribution to Indian public life.

She led from the front with quiet conviction to champion a range of social and economic rights. Her support was central to a conditional right to work through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, assuring by law 100 days of work to every rural family that demands employment, within 15 days of their demand and within 5 km of where they live. Instead of a dole, it pledged the dignity of productive work that would build rural infrastructure.

The implementation of this law has been stymied by low allocations, delayed fund flow, corruption and a refusal by states to respect the guarantee imbedded within the law. Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously scoffed at it on the floor of Parliament in 2015, caricaturing it as a programme of digging ditches. He did not acknowledge the potential the programme carried – and had accomplished in regions and occasions where it was implemented with conviction – to stave off hunger and distress migration in the countryside, bringing much-needed small surpluses to the hands of millions of rural people, especially women.

Right to education, food for all

It should not have taken us 62 years to give constitutional recognition to the right of every child to free and compulsory education. The 2009 Right to Education Act guaranteed a public school with qualified staff and adequate infrastructure in the neighbourhood of every child in the country, one that charged no fee and left no child behind. But to implement the statute required the doubling of India’s public spending on elementary education, an investment the state never made even after the passage of the law. And it is only a common neighbourhood school for all children, rich and poor, of diverse faiths and castes that could fulfil the right of every child in India to equal opportunities, a right that continues to be denied.

Sonia Gandhi's support was central to a conditional right to work through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. (Credit: Reuters)

Sonia Gandhi staked her prestige in the National Food Security Act. Asked about her New Year resolve following her party’s restoration to power in 2009, she replied, “Food for all.” The law could again have done more. But still, in just its scale and ambition, it is the largest social security programme backed by law in the world. It guarantees half the calorie requirements of 800 million people every month almost for free, school meals for roughly 120 million children in public elementary schools, pre-school feeding for another 120 million children, and one meal and universal maternity benefits for all pregnant and lactating mothers. Again, this law has been thwarted by low allocations and unsteady political commitment. Yet, it remains a lifeline for millions of our people who still sleep hungry.

Right to information Act

Perhaps her crowning glory is the Right to Information Act, one of the strongest of such laws anywhere in the world. It has proved to be among the most significant official measures to reform governance and deepen democracy in the country since Independence. This radical statute empowers citizens to seek answers from the government that are necessary to evaluate the integrity and fairness of its decisions. Few could have predicted how profoundly this idea would alter and deepen democracy across this vast land. The state penetrates virtually every aspect of a person’s life in modern India, and governments run many programmes that are critical for the survival of millions of impoverished people. But although governments are elected by the people in the Indian republic, they tend to function as masters rather than public servants. Like masters, they feel no one outside the government should have the right to question whether government decisions are honest, or lawful, or fair. How can masters ever be subject to such questioning?

The Right to Information law passed by Parliament in 2005, mainly with the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, has proved to be the most significant reform in public administration because this statute established that people have the right to question all public servants who they pay with their taxes. It is an instrument in the hands of the people to claim democracy, and support and strengthen their struggles. It enables them to question – and battle without arms – their governments.

Her support was crucial also for laws that mandated the ending of manual scavenging (the practice of disposing of human excreta by hand), accorded land rights in forest areas to tribal cultivators, punished child sexual abuse, ensured a more just deal to people whose lands are forcefully acquired by the state, protected the rights and security of street vendors, and secured some social security for unorganised workers, among many others. Her draft to strengthen the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act with a series of far-reaching amendments was accepted in its totality by the last government, and passed by Parliament on the present government’s watch.

I heard and participated in the debates as many of these laws were initially drafted in the National Advisory Council, which was set up by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government with Sonia Gandhi as its chairperson (and of which I was a member from 2010 to 2012). She presided over the debates with insight, intelligence, grace, patience, occasional humour and always a robust social democratic perspective. During the alliance’s first term in office, she had greater success because she found a strong political ally in the Left. In its second term, she was more politically isolated for her social democratic convictions, even within her own party. Many of the drafts she forwarded to the Union government were considerably watered down by the cabinet, all of which she accepted with grace. One draft law that was never even introduced in Parliament was of the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, which sought to punish public officials who failed to prevent and control communal violence, with a new crime of dereliction of duty. If this law had been passed, it would have helped prevent the rise of hate crimes today with complete impunity because the police and the administration openly side with the attackers and criminalise and persecute the victims. But perhaps it was too far ahead of its times, and few even in her own party supported it, believing that it was pro-minority and, therefore, politically perilous. Some members of the National Advisory Council advised her assiduously that such a law would be politically problematic. Her reply was firm: “I am the only politician in this room. Please leave the politics to me. Advise me only about what is ethically right, not what is politically pragmatic.”

Asked about her New Year resolve following her party’s restoration to power in 2009, Sonia Gandhi replied, “Food for all.” (Credit: Noah Seelam / AFP)

Defending India’s poorest

My first engagement with Sonia Gandhi came much earlier. From 1993 to 1996, I was posted at the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, charged with training young recruits to India’s civil services. At that time, hand-pulled rickshaws were still the main mode of public transport in Mussoorie. I found it intolerable that a town that had been sending out the country’s senior civil servants every year for decades should still be scarred with this execrable symbol of human slavery, of thin malnourished tubercular men pulling other human beings. With my trainee civil servants, we worked hard to bring an end to hand-pulled rickshaws for all time, and to replace these with cycle rickshaws that we specially redesigned for the hills. The only barrier was money to replace the hand rickshaws with the new cycle rickshaws for free. The rickshaw drivers were too impoverished to bear the cost of the replacement. I looked everywhere for money, knocking on many doors, including of governments and foundations, but drew a blank. I then thought of asking the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, at that time headed by Sonia Gandhi. She loved the project and supported it, and as a result, we were able to end the era of hand-pulled rickshaws in Mussoorie.

When history evaluates the political legacy of a woman from a working-class family in faraway Italy who led India’s oldest political party for two decades, it will find aspects both to applaud and to criticise. But will it acknowledge that at a time when few even in her own party were convinced that business-led economics needed to be assuaged with public compassion in a framework of enforceable rights, she led the creation of a framework of social legislations for the defence of India’s poorest people? That for two decades, India’s disinherited millions found in her a resolute and reliable champion.