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Sonia Gandhi’s 19 years as Congress president: From husband Rajiv’s death to son Rahul’s elevation

Sonia Gandhi’s tenure as Congress’ president has seen the party at its strongest – even coming to power at the Centre twice – but also at its weakest in a span of two decades.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2017 16:35 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sonia Gandhi,Rahul Gandhi,Congress President
Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi ahead of Rahul Gandhi's elevation ceremony on Saturday. (PTI)

The nearly two-decade-long tenure of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president came to an end as she handed over the reins of the party to her son Rahul Gandhi on Monday, leaving behind a legacy full of ups and downs.

Chaos and confusion reigned supreme when she assumed the charge of the grand old party in 1998. A fragmented Congress then ruled just four states of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Mizoram and Nagaland and it had 141 members in the Lok Sabha. The party’s flagging fortunes forced her to come out of self-imposed political hibernation.

And within six years under her leadership, the party’s fortunes swung considerably.

Sonia Gandhi at an Iftar party at the AICC headquarters in January 1998. ( Prakash Singh/HT Archives )

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.

Early turbulence

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.

Sonia Gandhi at a AICC special session in May 1999. ( Manish Swarup/HT Archive )

“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.

Mulayam snub

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.

Sonia Gandhi greets people at a darbar session in May 1999. ( Pradeep Singh/HT Archives )

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.

Biggest political masterstroke

Following her “inner voice”, Sonia stunned the world in 2004 when she declined the prime minister’s post after the Congress-led UPA came to power. “Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal,” she then said, taking both supporters and opponents by surprise.

Manmohan Singh greets Sonia Gandhi after being sworn in as the Prime Minister at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi in May 2004. Singh became PM after Gandhi declined the position. ( SN Sinha/HT Archive )

Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj threatened to shave her head, don a white saree and eat groundnuts if Sonia became the prime minister. Sonia had earlier defeated Swaraj from Bellary in Karnataka in the 1999 parliamentary polls.

Sonia again gave a shock to her political adversaries on March 23, 2006, when she resigned from the Lok Sabha and the National Advisory Council in the wake of the office-of-profit controversy. However, she was re-elected from Rae Bareli with a huge margin in May same year.

While she was named the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2004, her name featured in Time’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2007.

UPA retains power in 2009

She again played a key role in the UPA’s return to power in 2009 general elections. The Congress on its own won 206 seats, till then the highest by any party since 1991.

The BJP surpassed it in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by winning 282 of the 543 seats. At one point during her tenure, the Congress ruled in 15 states.


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.

Best performance in Lok Sabha

As leader of the opposition, she moved a no-confidence motion against the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in August 2003.

During her speech on August 18, she dismissed the NDA’s projected growth rate of 8% as “Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne (Mungerilal’s Sweet Dreams).”

Future role

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.

Sonia Gandhi talks to son Rahul during a memorial ceremony for her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his 20th death anniversary in New Delhi in May 2011. ( HT File Photo )

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.

Having said that, Rahul’s take over will not bring down the curtains on the long tenure of Sonia but also herald a new era in the grand old party.

First Published: Dec 11, 2017 14:17 IST