Sonia Gandhi steps down as Congress president: A look back at her remarkable, turbulent political journey

On 1 January, 2004, Sonia Gandhi emerged out of her 10 Janpath residence, walked across the nearby roundabout surrounded by SPG security men and reached the gates of 12 Janpath, the then residence of Ram Vilas Paswan. That little distance travelled marked a huge leap in the course of India's contemporary political history.

No one remembered when was the last time she was seen walking on the roads of New Delhi. Sonia had not sought an appointment with Paswan. Her office had simply checked whether he was at home. She had landed unannounced, without any warning. It was too much of a surprise for Paswan to digest but he was completely floored by Sonia's personal warmth, initiative and political acumen to win over a potential ally who was sitting on the fence, unsure of his future.

File image of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. Reuters

File image of Congress leaders Rahul and Sonai Gandhi. Reuters

The rest, as they say, is history, as she and her party strategists called on one potential ally after another, including the DMK and the Left to form the UPA (United Progressive Alliance). It was under her command that the Congress could successfully stitch together a coalition and run effectively for a decade.

It signified that she had learnt from her mistakes and had matured as a leader, who understood the importance of pre-poll alliances. Five years prior, in April 1999, after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government fell by one vote on the floor of the Lok Sabha, Sonia staked claim to form the government and said famously in accented English: "We have (the support of) 272 and many more (are) coming". She, however, could not gather the support of 272 and the country went for fresh elections only to see the return of the Vajpayee government.

In 2004, the BJP was trounced and the Congress made a surprise return to power. The lonely grieving lady from 10 Janpath on whom the Congress had thrust greatness and responsibility had come on her own. She was a leader in her own right, the unquestioned chairperson of the ruling UPA and the chairperson of the National Advisory Council.

She would not become the prime minister herself but would nominate one and enjoy all the powers without being in office, without being held responsible and accountable. All good actions would be attributed to her initiatives and all the follies would be blamed on the government and the party. For 10 long years, for two successive terms of government, till the 2014 Parliamentary elections, she would remain as a 'super' prime minister and an extra-constitutional authority. That was the height of power and authority any person could ever wish for.

She had set a precedent that would be hard to follow for any Indian leader or even elsewhere in any democratic country in the world.

Then the big question today, when she announced her retirement from the president's post a day ahead of her son Rahul Gandhi’s formal coronation, is what she must be feeling – happy as a Congress president, that by retiring after being at the helm for 19 long years she was ushering yet another generational shift in Congress; happy, both as a mother and Congress president that she was handing over the charge to the most suitable person who would take the Congress to even greater heights; or just happy, as a mother that her role as regent is over and that her son is now the king of their 'kingdom'.

Sonia will forever have the honour of holding the party president's post for 19 consecutive years, something that even her family elders Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and husband Rajiv Gandhi could not accomplish.

Though that was not the only chapter she wrote in her name in Congress' 132-year-long history. She made Congress' return to power possible when it seemed to be an impossible task, particularly when she was pitted against the likes of Vajpayee and LK Advani.

Sonia scripted the remarkable story of a woman who was born as Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in a small township of Italy, made India as her home and fought against all the adversities after the assassination of her husband to become the most powerful person in India.

She had the Congress party's might and popular sympathy on her side but eventually, it was her grit to succeed that made her journey remarkable. Her rise was also a commentary on the Indian society and how it embraced a woman of Italian origin as its own 'bahu' (daughter-in-law) and gave her so much love and affection that she could rule India for 10 long years.

If her rise was well and truly remarkable, then her and Congress party's fall is equally noteworthy. She will also forever hold the distinction of being at the helm when the electoral fortunes of her party reached its ebb twice – first in 1999, when Congress could manage to win only 114 seats (the lowest ever back then) and then in 2014, when Congress got a humiliating total of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress, which once used to rule all of India, is now limited to ruling Karnataka, Punjab and a few north-eastern states. In next six months, Karnataka is going to polls and the party can't be sure if it would retain power.

In last 19 years, the aura around her kept growing but as president, she never had a plan to expand and strengthen the party's base. She did lead and won the 2004 and 2009 Parliamentary election and some state elections and there was all-round praise for her. But every single loss was blamed on party workers, on the lower organisational structures, for not doing the hard work of taking her messages and achievements to the common man. But that's precisely how the Congress has, over the decades, built the aura and mystique around the Gandhi-Nehru family.

It was during her presidency that Congress allowed rival Narendra Modi to make his in Indian politics, win an absolute majority in the Parliamentary election and let BJP rule spread to dozen-and-a-half states.

In recent times, Sonia has been unwell and her public appearances have been reduced to the minimal. She has not campaigned for the party she leads for a long time now. It was no surprise then when in response to a query over her future role in Congress, she made a brief six-word remark: "My role is now to retire."

She didn't clarify whether she was retiring from active politics, or if she was simply calling it quits from the day to day affairs of the Congress in order to let her 47-year-old son take full charge as Congress president and be the sole power centre in the party.

She didn't want any confusion in the minds of Congressmen and women, particularly among those from the older generations who looked up to her, for their continued relevance in the party.

What followed was something unprecedented for the Congress – a party spokesman coming out on record to clarify what their supreme leader had just said. Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted:

That sets the stage for Sonia to don a new role as a mentor for the party and her continuance as the chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party.

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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2017 22:27:11 IST

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