Sonia: From the wilderness into the corridors of power

MR Narayan Swamy

New Delhi, May 15:

She may still be a baby in Indian politics, but Congress president Sonia Gandhi has become the first in the Nehru-Gandhi family to get into the corridors of power after starting from the wilderness. When Sonia Gandhi took to politics in 1998, the Congress — India’s oldest party — had been reduced to a rump and was gasping for oxygen under the relentless onslaught of the ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Far from its stature as India’s dominant political entity, the Congress then had just 140 members in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

It was a scenario where few would have dared to take a step forward. Way back when India became independent in August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru — her slain husband Rajiv Gandhi’s grandfather - became the prime minister of India on the recommendation of Mahatma Gandhi.

Nehru himself enjoyed immense stature, the Congress was then at the zenith of its popularity, and as prime minister he led the party to victories in elections in 1952, 1957 and 1962 before dying on May 27, 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi, who ultimately emerged as one of India’s shrewdest politicians, was inducted into the Congress when Nehru was prime minister. When she became prime minister, the Congress was a ruling party. True, Indira Gandhi did face a bleak future when she was ousted from power in the 1977 elections. But she had plenty of hands-on experience of Indian politics to storm back to power in 1980.

Similarly, when she was shot dead, Rajiv Gandhi — who took to politics only after his younger brother Sanjay’s death in 1980 — got prime ministership on a platter.

He remained in power for five years, losing his mandate in 1989. His years in the opposition matured him but he was assassinated even as he was trying to come back to power.

In complete contrast, Sonia Gandhi was a novice in every sense of the term when she took to politics and addressed her first public rally on January 11, 1998, at the very spot where her husband was killed near Chennai. She knew few political players by face or even name, she was considered aloof and cold, she did not emit the typical politician-friendliness, her command over Hindi was poor and she lacked original ideas — or so felt most people. But as she began to lead the Congress to one victory after another in state elections, her stature grew. But it suffered a major setback in December as the Congress was routed in three heartland states. When the BJP called early general elections and the ruling coalition unleashed a propaganda blitzkrieg, pitting the veteran Vajpayee against Sonia Gandhi, the latter indeed looked like a pygmy. By then, however, Sonia Gandhi was six years into politics and had clearly understood the very many complexities of the game. But it is doubtful if even she would have imagined that she would lead the Congress, which looked so down and out when the elections began, to a sweeping win in parliament elections, making it the single largest group in the Lok Sabha for the first time since 1991 — the year her husband died a terrible death.