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Ten years - and counting - for Sonia

As Sonia Gandhi completed 10 years as Congress president on Thursday, it was time for kudos from party members and analysts who say she faces a tougher task than her predecessors.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2008 17:04 IST
Liz Mathew
Liz Mathew

The enigmatic Italy born widow with no political experience has morphed into the unchallenged leader of India's ruling Congress party. As Sonia Gandhi completed 10 years as Congress president on Thursday, it was time for kudos from party members and analysts who say she faces a tougher task than her predecessors.

She is described as "simple, compassionate and inspiring", a far cry from the politically gauche leader that she was thought to be not so long ago.

When Gandhi, widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, took over as the president of the Congress March 6, 1998, not many thought she would last.

None of her predecessors since 1929, - 24 of them including India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru - claim such a long uninterrupted presidency of the Congress.

In the last 10 years, the 62-year-old Gandhi has proved every one of the sceptics wrong. From a virtual sphinx, she has evolved into a powerful voice for India in the international community, a tough challenge for the opposition in the country and a leader who signifies hope for the Congress party.

Born and brought up as a Catholic in a middle-class family in Italy, Gandhi's ascent as the face of the oldest political party in the largest democracy was not easy.

"A lot of people in the Congress tried to finish her. They were waiting for her to fall. They underestimated her. But she proved to be a good learner and she earned what she is today," said young Congress MP Tejaswini Gowda.

In the 17 years since the assassination of her husband Rajiv, the sari-clad Gandhi has managed to steer the Congress, which had been written off at a time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was riding high, to power.

But when it came to becoming prime minister in 2004 after the Congress' stunning electoral victory, she withdrew and anointed economist Manmohan Singh in her stead. That one act earned Gandhi - who insists that she is a practising Hindu and was named the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes Magazine - many loyalists.

"Going by the single criterion that she has led the party without any opposition for a decade shows that there is absolutely no threat to her leadership. It is unprecedented in the party," observed N. Bhaskar Rao, a leading public personnel expert.

Rao feels that Gandhi is very different from her predecessors, including her tough as nails mother-in-law Indira Gandhi and her husband Rajiv.

"They (both Rajiv and Indira) were prime ministers too. But they never led a coalition. I think Sonia Gandhi's is a tougher task. Taking along a coalition is very difficult."

Although Gandhi plays a crucial role in her party-led government's decision-making, by and large she remains quiet in the Lok Sabha where she has been a member since 1999.

Congress leaders were quick to call Gandhi a "huge success and an immensely popular leader".

"Sonia has been leading the party excellently. She is the only popular leader who can bring back the Congress party to power very shortly," said Era Anbarasu, a former MP and a Congress leader, who has worked with both Rajiv and Indira Gandhi.

Another MP, Sachin Pilot, said: "Whenever there is a catastrophe in the country - whether it is natural or manmade - Sonia Gandhi is the political leader who reaches there first. Her humility is unbelievable."

Pilot, a first time MP in the Lok Sabha, also pointed out Gandhi has never done anything to "demean her dignity".

"The opposition as well as the media were very harsh to her. But she has always been resilient, never spoken a word against anyone."

There are some doubts about the "coterie" advising her.

"I am worried that some of the coterie around her perhaps do not have the political acumen required. They do not guide her properly in some of the decisions. Besides, she should interact with the public to make decision-making more effective," said Anbarasu.

But Rao feels there is nothing wrong in having a coterie. "As far as the coterie is concerned, all the political leaders around the world have coteries around them. The coterie belongs to the public. It depends on whether they are reflective of the larger issues of the nation.