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Being Sonia: India's most powerful person has an electoral mountain to climb

india Updated: Apr 16, 2014 12:17 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Sonia Gandhi

It's been a challenging four and a half decades since she first came to India as Rajiv Gandhi's bride. Her mother-in-law and husband were assassinated in horrific circumstances.

Some years later an intimidating job was thrust on her as Congress turned once again to a Gandhi for guidance, elections were lost and won, and a job renounced, an act which carried its own criticism.

Read: Sonia's first poll rally in Telangana today

Some of those problems were in the personal space, but now the challenge Sonia Gandhi faces is purely political, and the toughest of her life. Her UPA government is battling for survival in the face of a BJP energised by Narendra Modi; the smart money is on Congress emerging a poor second best on May 16, and being consigned to the wilderness of opposition for the next few years.

On Monday, she made a rare television appearance, exhorting voters in Hindi to reject "divisive and autocratic" forces (read BJP) which would ruin the idea of "Hindustaniyat" or "Bharatiyata".

Howls of protest from the BJP followed, aimed variously at her Italian origins and the Congress' "dynastic" politics. It would have all sounded familiar to Sonia, but she had been left with little choice but to come out and attack.

Read: Jaitley says new Congress slogan is ‘ Main nahin, mom

Son Rahul was always a reluctant entrant into the fray, and, despite his elevation to vice-president, has failed to grip the public imagination. It doesn't help that the UPA is carrying the baggage of corruption scandals, poor growth and stubbornly high prices.

So it's probably just as well that Sonia has seen defeat: under her, Congress was beaten in the general elections in 1999. But she won a famous victory in 2004 and since then Congress has led the UPA government at the Centre, at one point controlling 16 state governments.

"She was able to revive the party when it was down and out and brought the focus back to welfare and secularism," said political analyst Zoya Hasan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, but adds that in the party's second term (2009-2014) she did not pay sufficient attention to its reorganisation, and notes the lack of the same decisive leadership.

Read: Margin, not victory, is the challenge for Sonia, Modi

There were also powerful gestures along the way. She quit as party president in 1999, a year after she took the job, after some Congressmen challenged her elevation on the grounds of her foreign origin.

The dissenters were expelled and she came back a week later. In 2006, she quit Parliament after a controversy over her holding an office of profit, and was re-elected soon after. In 2004, the PM's job was hers for the taking, but she followed her "inner voice", and handed it to Manmohan Singh.

This act drew plenty of praise as a Gandhian (of the Mahatma variety) gesture, but also flak, for it put her in a position of the power behind the throne, with little of the responsibility.

Indeed, a damaging book by former PMO official Sanjaya Baru, released last week, suggests that she bypassed her prime minister regularly.

At 67, Sonia is the longest-serving president of a 128-year-old party. She is inscrutable as ever: If she knows how the elections are going to turn out, she isn't showing any signs.