Last month, largely unnoticed, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, logged an important milestone—she completed 15 years in formal politics. A hugely significant decade-and-a-half; within six years she managed to return her party to the familiar environs of power; and, then five years later, did an encore. It is a résumé that is unparalleled in Indian politics.
It is a pity then that she has chosen to remain a king maker and not actually donned the mantle of the formal leader of the party, both within and outside of government. Given the current circumstance of the party, with an untested force, Rahul Gandhi, chosen to lead to fight not only the anti-incumbency mood (stoked by an incredible implosion of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in its second tenure) but also what looks like a resurgent opposition with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at the helm, it is imperative for Sonia Gandhi to move to the forefront; the younger Gandhi would only learn the ropes better by being his mother’s second in command.
Regardless of the fact that this is a decision that rests with Sonia Gandhi, no one could have imagined this in January 1998—when she chose Nandurbar, a predominantly tribal area of Maharashtra, to launch herself formally in politics—that she would traverse so far and so fast in Indian politics.
Sujata Anandan, Mumbai-based political editor of the Hindustan Times and at that time with the Indian Express, recalls how it surprised everyone present there, including Sharad Pawar, who at that time was still with the Congress. According to her, the tribals, who were always in awe of Indira Gandhi, saw Sonia Gandhi as “Indira chi soon bai” (a respectful reference, in Marathi, to her as Indira’s daughter-in-law); and so they turned up in huge numbers to cheer the new Gandhi or Sonabai, as they have come to refer to her out of affection.
By the time Sonia Gandhi arrived at the election rally in her helicopter, over a lakh had assembled to receive her. In fact, Anandan recalls, Gandhi herself was taken aback; showing amazing political savvy, she got back into the helicopter and in a daring manoeuvre leaned out of an open door to wave to the crowds as the helicopter did three very low rounds. “I remember everyone was left stunned at the turnout,” Anandan said. (No surprise then that the UPA chose Nandurbar to launch Aadhaar, UPA’s marquee programme to equip every resident of India with a unique identity; Gandhi’s quiet payback to the constituency that launched her in 1998.)
It was indeed the turning point for the Congress, which had all but, given the massive dissent within the party, reconciled to a life in the wilderness. Throughout Maharashtra, she continued to draw crowds and charge up the cadres. Eventually, in the 1998 general election, the party won over 33 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra.
Since then, she has paid her due in politics and the Indian electorate has responded; the foreigner tag is no longer a liability. After all, think of how many of our current politicians (yes, Narasimha Rao knew a raft of languages), have actually succeeded in learning two foreign languages—Hindi and English—and using them to converse with the public.
And time and again she has reminded us about her political sense. First, in launching the rural employment guarantee scheme and later the right to information and right to education. Steadily, despite the reluctance of her own government, she has put in place an entitlement regime that has in part addressed the aspirations of the Indian population—which now wants to learn how to fish and not be given fish as by way of largesse. It is another matter that these entitlements have stoked greater expectations among the populace, which the UPA has lacked imagination to first recognize and then deliver upon.
Second, she has time again demonstrated her political instincts, whether it be through a seemingly spontaneous appearance to join celebrations at India Gate immediately after India lifted the cricket world cup in Mumbai or more recently to briefly engage with a reactive young crowd that was protesting against the rape and murder of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi, when her own government rejected them.
All of this has goes to prove that if the Congress has to stem the tide of anti-incumbency and the emerging Modi wave, then Gandhi has to take charge at the helm. Undoubtedly, it will be a compelling contest; let the best person win.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org