New Delhi: As elections 2009 were being announced in March this year, Sonia Gandhi completed 11 years as president of the Congress party—the first to do so. For Gandhi, an Italian by birth, the elections are an acid test. The verdict will be an indicator of how far she has managed to revive the 124-year-old party—which many thought had no chance of coming to power in 2004—and prepare the ground for handing over the baton to the next generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

This time, the party has gone to the polls with its alliances in disarray. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the party has seen its presence shrink over the years, it has decided to contest alone. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, some allies have deserted the party and joined rivals. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party is slowly losing its grip, and in Maharashtra it is doing a tightrope walk. It has struck a deal in West Bengal with Mamata Banerjee but the Trinamool Congress leader could prove to be unpredictable, especially in the post-poll scenario while dealing with the Left.

Also See Will The Smiles Stay? (Graphic)

Even though Gandhi remains the undisputable leader of the Congress, there is no sign that she has managed to shake up the moribund party. The organization is in disarray at the state level. In Vidisha, a parliamentary constituency in Madhya Pradesh, the party did not even manage to file a nomination against its principal rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), making it a cakewalk for the saffron party. Moreover, there is no evidence that the party has begun rebuilding in important states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it is contesting alone.

Also Read At A Glance (PDF)

In 2004, the party led the United Progressive Alliance to power on the back of strong alliance. Gandhi had two leaders—Harkishan Singh Surjeet and V.P. Singh—giving her independent counsel. This time she has no such advisers, says Rasheed Kidwai, who follows the Gandhi family closely and has authored a biography on Gandhi.

Gandhi has come a long way since she took over the party in 1998.

By then, she had declined the crown twice already. The first time was immediately after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and second time was when the breakaway Tiwari Congress led by the Narayan Dutt Tiwari-Arjun Singh faction was revolting against then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

She stayed neutral and initially backed Sitaram Kesari. In 1997 she agreed to campaign for the party for the 1998 general election. Despite her efforts, the party fared badly. Her supporters blamed Kesari and advised her to take over the party. They said the old man was unable to keep the unity. Subsequently Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma left the party citing her foreign origin as a hurdle.

When Gandhi took over, she set herself two objectives. One was to unite the party and second, bring it back to power. Sure enough, within nine months of Gandhi taking over the party, the Congress won assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.

In 1999, at the end of 14-month BJP rule the Congress was once again in trouble. In the subsequent elections, it could manage a mere 114 seats, even lower than the 141 it had in 1998. There was a fierce debate over her foreign origin when her name came up as a candidate for prime ministership. After this episode a more mature persona of Gandhi emerged. She began to even meet those who nurtured personal animosity towards her family. She forged links with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad whose parties had grown on the core ideology of anti-Congressism.

In May 2004 she decided to listen to her “inner voice" and renounced prime ministership, gaining moral authority and all round appreciation. This was the high point of her political career. She suddenly looked unassailable. She anointed Manmohan Singh as prime minister and started a new experiment in shared authority.

As Pawar puts it, “This government has managed to complete five years without any major controversy." All this paid dividends. This election season she has visited her constituency, Rae Bareli, only once; daughter Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra is handling her campaign there.

Gandhi may have evolved into a good leader and a competent speaker, but she is yet to break out of the straitjacketed ways of the grand old party. She believe in arriving at decisions by consensus—which is both a good and a bad way to work in a coalition—and seems to place a premium on loyalty over capability—one reason why analysts say she was reluctant to get rid of underperforming former home minister Shivraj Patil.

A decade after she formally entered politics, Gandhi enjoys complete control over her party. But it is the elections that will finally decide how far she has arrived.

Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.

Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint

Twenty20 is a series on 20 political leaders. Click here to read all the profiles.