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The enigma of departure: Sonia Gandhi leaves behind a rich legacy

A fiercely protective mother, a street smart politician, a people manager extraordinaire, a Nehruvian socialist: These are a few ways we remember the outgoing Congress president

analysis Updated: Dec 27, 2017 13:22 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
Sonia Gandhi,Rahul Gandhi,Congress
Congress president Rahul Gandhi greets his mother and predecessor Sonia Gandhi, New Delhi, December 16. (Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

Ill fortune has pursued the powerful Gandhi family as relentlessly as the Furies in a Greek tragedy. A prime minister often called the Empress of India felled by her own bodyguards. A handsome young former prime minister on a comeback trail blown to bits by an assassin. Close to the epicentre of these cataclysmic events that changed the course of politics in India and devastated by them was the woman who would one day come to control the fortunes of the 132-year-old Congress party and eventually India. Sonia Gandhi may have been a reluctant entrant into politics, pushed to the pinnacle by a party which has never been able to function without the glue of the Gandhi family. When she stepped down as party president earlier this month, the transformation of the political ingénue to consummate politician had become the stuff of legend. The fact that she is still there behind the scenes can only be of comfort to her son as he begins his innings as president after a somewhat chequered career now salvaged by the good showing in Gujarat. It will also be of comfort to her partymen and the millions who support the grand old party.

Many people forget the circumstances under which she stepped into politics. She resisted the entreaties of Congressmen for six years after the death of her husband, an indication of how reluctant she was to join a world which claimed the lives of those closest to her. But once she agreed to become president of the party in 1998, the shy hesitation vanished and she became the unchallenged primus inter pares of the party. Those who challenged her were soon vanquished and excommunicated by a party which tried to prove itself more loyal than the queen.

When she renounced power after the Congress roared back to centrestage in 2004, in one fell swoop, she ascended a rare pedestal in Indian politics. She turned down the prime ministership. There is nothing that Indians love as much as the ascetic who shuns power when it could have been hers for the asking. But behind this decision was a shrewd pragmatic understanding that she would have been constantly assailed by her detractors, among them a then powerful Sharad Pawar, who would constantly question her foreign origin. The choice of the scholarly Dr Manmohan Singh was a masterstroke, seemingly giving her power without responsibility. It is then that she did not play her cards too well. Her National Advisory Council, full of latter-day Nehruvian socialists and what many referred to dismissively as bleeding heart liberals seemed to overwhelm the economist prime minister’s governance, pushing through giant social welfare schemes many of which went against the grain of the liberalisation and competitiveness that Dr Singh espoused.

The Sonia mystique remains intact even as she moves away from the spotlight. This has perhaps been nurtured by a great degree of inaccessibility to the media. Yet, with crowds in remote villages and towns, she was the caring matriarch, listening intently to their problems. But even her deft political footwork could not save a party crumbling from inertia and sloth, unable to face an aggressive BJP and the masterly oratory of Narendra Modi. The downhill slide has been on in full force since 2013. The party’s improved performance in defeat in Gujarat could mark the beginning of a revival, though, and is perhaps a a fitting parting gift to Sonia.

When learned articles are written on women political leaders in South Asia and Asia, Sonia’s name features prominently. But unlike, say Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Chandrika Kumaratunga or even her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, she was not born into a political family where the mantle of power would one day fall on her. She was a rank outsider, the daughter of working class father, an object of some derision in Delhi’s notoriously elitist society who dismissed her as the au pair girl who caught the fancy of the prime minister’s son. It cannot have been easy for the young Italian girl to marry into the patrician Gandhi family and become part of a household which has never been out of the limelight in independent India. But helped by a doting mother-in-law, she grew into the role using all she had learnt from the mercurial Indira when she herself entered the muscular world of politics. She walked like her, dressed like her and eventually displayed the sharp skills that earned Indira the title of India’s most powerful politician.

For a person so obsessed with legacy, she leaves her son a desperately difficult task of rebuilding the shattered party. But if he has learnt from Sonia’s ability to forge fortuitous alliances, project an inclusive and secular front, accept that sometimes the party has to play second fiddle to powerful regional parties, then he certainly has a fighting chance. As she moves away from centrestage in her party’s politics, we realise that after all these years, we know so little about Sonia as a person, her quirks, her likes. We only know her as a fiercely protective mother, a street smart politician, a people manager extraordinaire, a Nehruvian socialist. That is as far as she will let the public into her private world and that is how she intends to keep it. What’s her favourite dish? What does she read? Does she watch movies? Which are her favourite holiday destinations? As long as we don’t know the answers, we will remain endlessly fascinated by this enigmatic woman even as she steps off the contemporary political arena.

Lalita.Panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Dec 27, 2017 08:41 IST