When Sonia Gandhi's office at the All India Congress Committee is unlocked by the Special Protection Group on Friday, it will be a historic occasion.
The 63-year-old leader, who consented on Thursday to her nomination as Congress president for a fourth three-year term, will reinforce her record as the longest serving party chief for 12 consecutive years.
Indira Gandhi was party chief for eight years.
The fifth Nehru-Gandhi member to hold the post, Gandhi's years in politics have seen a transformation in her as well as in the 125-year-old party and the country's politics as she uses her role as United Progressive Alliance and National Advisory Council chairperson to steer the Congress-led government.
After succeeding Sitaram Kesri in 1998, Gandhi metamorphosed from a political novice into Forbes' 10 most powerful women in 2004 and Times's 100 most influential people in 2007.
She grew from a reluctant politician into a statesmanlike figure and icon of the poor, a foreigner who — like a true Indian her admirers would say — carries forward Indira and Rajiv Gandhi's legacy. In short, she evolved from an outsider into an insider.
"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I am not. I am an Indian," she once said.
When Gandhi became a primary member in 1997, the Congress was on the downslide, losing its support among upper castes, Muslims and Dalits to other parties following the Mandal and mandir agitations.
"She had taken the reins of the party when it was on the decline. It has been a great journey for the Congress since then," said Minister of State R.P.N. Singh.
To dislodge the BJP-NDA, Gandhi jettisoned the party's "go it alone" policy, wooed like-minded forces — including NCP's Sharad Pawar — and experimented with a national coalition. When the UPA won in 2004, she heeded her "inner voice", renounced the Prime Minister's post and acquired a political halo her adversaries envied.
She gave the Congress a pro-poor image, emphasised secularism and "inclusive growth" in governance, experimented with party-government-allies relationships and showed astuteness in quitting the NAC and seeking re-election from Rae Bareli in 2006 after the office of profit controversy.
Yet, she remains an enigma. Her bold experiments with national politics aren't visible on the organisational front. The Congress seems status quoist, failing to use the pro-poor initiatives in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or even Uttar Pradesh.
Sometimes, Gandhi appears to be stepping back, fuelling speculation on a greater role for Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi. There is an organisation-government hiatus as leaders like Digvijay Singh and P. Chidambaram publicly differ on anti-Naxal policy and "saffron terror".