Human beings are suckers for the single cause that explains all. We hate the idea that an event can have several proximate and remote causes because it makes the whole thing difficult to comprehend and neatly tell a story.
So, when Natwar Singh, a former cabinet minister in Manmohan Singh’s UPA-1 government, tells us in his book, One Life is Not Enough: An Autobiography, that the reason why Sonia Gandhi did not accept the top job in 2004 was Rahul, we are all ready to say “aha”.
Aha, it was not her ‘inner voice’ that did the trick.
Aha, it was not fear of being bullied by multiple allies that forced her to hand over the job to Manmohan Singh.
Aha, it was not Sushma Swaraj’s threat to tonsure her head that tilted the balance.
Aha, it was not President APJ Abdul Kalam who advised her against it.
The chances are many, many factors may have forced her hand, and it wasn’t just Rahul Gandhi’s fears - that she might be the next one in the family being set up for assassination after his grandmother and his father – and made him ask her to reject the job.
Let’s go back to the events of May 2004 and reconstruct what really happened.
When she declined the post in May 2004 after the Congress party emerged as the single largest party with sufficient allies to form a government, she said: “Throughout these past six years that I have been in politics, one thing has been clear to me. And that is, as I have often stated, that the post of prime minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice. Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post….Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal.” (Read her full speech of 2004 here)
This makes it sound that her decision was her own, nothing to do with Rahul.
But let us hear Abdul Kalam, then President, who met her on 18 May before her inner voice allegedly struck. In the past, there have been murmurs that Kalam may have advised her not to stake a claim, but this has not been corroborated by anybody so far.
In his book, Turning Points: A Journey Through Challenges, Kalam had this to say about that day, when she turned up not alone, but with Manmohan Singh in tow. This was before she disclosed matters about her inner voice.
Kalam writes: “I was told that Sonia Gandhi was meeting me at 12.15 in the afternoon of 18 May. She came in time but instead of coming alone she came with Dr Manmohan Singh and had a discussion with me. She said that she had the requisite numbers but she did not bring the letter of support signed by party functionaries. She would come with the letters of support on the 19th, she said. I asked her why do you postpone? We can even finish it this afternoon. She went away. Later I received a message that she would meet me in the evening, at 8.15 pm.”
Why didn’t she tell him then that she may decline the job? She said she had the numbers.
But Sonia’s meeting appears to have set the dovecotes aflutter. This is what Kalam writes about them: “While this communication was in progress, I had a number of emails and letters coming from individuals, organisations and parties that I should not allow Mrs Sonia Gandhi to become the Prime Minister of our country. I had passed on these mails and letters to various agencies in the government for their information without making any remarks. During this time there were many political leaders who came to meet me to request me not to succumb to any pressure and appoint Mrs Gandhi as the Prime Minister, a request that would not have been constitutionally tenable. If she had made any claim for herself I would have had no option but to appoint her.”
Clearly, there was a lobby working against her, and another for her. One can presume the former were largely from the NDA and the latter from the future UPA. And the first lobby was sending emails and letters telling Kalam why she didn’t qualify.
The odd line in Kalam’s statement is when he says “if she had made any claim for herself, I would have had no option but to appoint her.”
Was he not happy to appoint her otherwise? Why did he say he had “no option” as though he would have been happy to have had another option? And did he share any of the communications that urged him to prevent her from swearing her in? Instead, he says “passed on these mails and letters to various agencies in the government.”
If these letters had allegations against her, and Kalam told her about them, it would an entirely new construction on the words “no option but to appoint her.”
What transpired between Kalam and her (and Manmohan) will stay in the realm of speculation, but clearly she could not have been unaware of the issues that might come up if she became PM. As an Italian-born PM, her vulnerability would have been greater than Manmohan Singh’s.
Then there are the real eye-openers in Natwar Singh’s book describing her. Among the words he uses to describe her are “authoritarian”, “capricious” “Machiavellian” and “secretive.” The Indian Express’ paraphrasing says that Sonia Gandhi “evolved over the years from being a diffident, nervous, shy woman to being ambitious, authoritarian, capricious, and obsessively secretive.”
This is in sharp contrast to what Rahul Gandhi himself had to say about his mother’s attitude to power in 2013, when he was anointed Vice-President of the Congress party. Soon after the announcement, she apparently went to his room and cried. “My mother came to my room and cried... because she understands that power is poison.” A PTI report from that time adds; “The young leader received a standing ovation by the audience, which included Sonia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he said ‘We should not chase power, only use it to empower others.’”
This leaves us with this question: did Sonia Gandhi want power or not? Both she and her son would like us to believe she didn’t, but the preponderance of evidence – Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, and now Natwar Singh’s – suggest that she did wield enormous power, but she chose not to seek it directly. Baru makes it absolutely clear that Sonia was the only power centre, and Natwar Singh even tells us she was "authoritarian." Not exactly words that describe people who didn't want power.
There is also another piece of evidence that Sonia Gandhi did consider becoming prime minister. In 1999, when the Vajpayee government lost a vote of confidence, she went to the President (then KR Narayanan) and claimed she had the support of 272 MPs. She said: ''We have 272 and we hope to get more. 'We are confident we will get more.''
This does not suggest that there was any inner voice at work in 1999. As opposed to that, she said in 2004 that "the post of prime minister is not my aim." Did she give up the aim sometime between claiming 272 in 1999 and 2004?
Maybe Rahul’s pleading was the tipping point in 2004, but the inner voice may not have been anything more than common sense.