Having been the driving force behind the Congress for more than 19 years, the 71-year-old Sonia – who underwent a successful surgery abroad in 2011 – delegated most of her responsibilities to her son Rahul in the past few years. She has already created history by becoming the longest serving chief of the nearly 131-year-old party.
After her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, Sonia rejected pleas to join the Congress. However, she finally shed her reluctance and agreed to join politics in 1997 when she became a primary member of the grand old party at its Kolkata plenary.
A few months later on March 14, 1998, she was elected as the Congress president. But more than a year later on May 15, 1999, just before the Lok Sabha elections, she resigned from the post after senior leaders Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar opposed her being projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, ostensibly on the grounds of her foreign origin.
“Although born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country and would remain an Indian till my last breath. India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life,” Sonia wrote in her resignation letter to the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
The move prompted hunger-strikes and agitation from Congress workers and she agreed to take back her resignation after the party expelled Pawar, Sangma and Anwar on May 20.
The CWC was informed of her decision on May 24, 1999. The next day, a special session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) was called to welcome her back as the party president.
After the fall of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government on April 17, 1999, by just one vote, Sonia met the then president KR Narayanan on April 21 to seek time to form the next government.
“We have 272 and more are coming,” she told journalists at the Rashtrapati Bhavan after meeting the president.
But in a U-turn, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that his party would not support the Congress, leaving Sonia shell-shocked. She was banking on Yadav and the Left parties to reach the magic figure.
Yadav instead floated the name of veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Jyoti Basu for the prime minister’s post but Sonia rejected the move.
First electoral success
In 2004, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee looked invincible and the BJP-led NDA unassailable but Sonia demolished both. Her ‘aam aadmi’ slogan crushed the BJP’s “feel good” and “India shining” catchphrases.
It was her efforts that saw several parties come together to stitch a coalition that came to be known as United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Not only was she able to revive the party when it was down and out, Sonia also brought the government’s focus back to welfare and secularism. She is often credited with taking the Congress to the left-of-the-centre position.
As the chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) set up to monitor the implementation of the coalition government’s common minimum programme, she initiated several pro-poor welfare projects such as right to information, rural employment guarantee scheme, right to education and food security act.
As she hands over the baton to the 47-year-old Rahul, Sonia could take the role of the party’s chief patron or head the Congress Parliamentary Party. Congress leaders have already indicated that she is unlikely to seek re-election from Rae Bareli in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
A binding force for the Congress and known for her ability to stitch good alliances, she could be a guiding force for the opposition parties. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury recently called Sonia the “glue” that binds the Congress as well as the opposition.
Though Rahul had virtually taken over the Congress as its de facto head, it was under Sonia’s leadership that the party registered its worst ever electoral performance bagging just 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
She also faced criticism for delaying the process of restructuring of the Congress organisation, a highly centralised leader-driven party, due to her indecisiveness.