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The astonishing saga of Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi completes 10 years as Congress president on Friday — a landmark that has eluded her illustrious predecessors, reports Saroj Nagi.
Hindustan Times | By Saroj Nagi, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 14, 2008 02:15 AM IST

Sonia Gandhi completes 10 years as Congress president on Friday — a landmark that has eluded her illustrious predecessors through the party’s 122-years. She will mark the occasion by travelling to Andhra Pradesh, a state that played a big role in 2004 to restore her party to power after eight years in the wilderness.

It has been an arduous journey for Rajiv Gandhi’s doughty widow who shunned public life for seven years after his death. But when she took the plunge, she did it wholeheartedly, braving the “foreign origin’’ tag and taunts of being a “reader and not a leader” — to emerge as the party’s anchor and crowdpuller somewhat in the mould of Indira Gandhi, who, of course, never had the daunting task of managing a coalition.

The Congress had all but withered away under Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. Sonia’s arrival at the helm stemmed the decline, giving the party the strength to fight back. She disproved skeptics by holding her own and finding a place in the Forbes list of world’s most powerful women.

The rigours of politics seem to have caught up with Sonia when she recently spent time in a hospital. Son Rahul then remarked that she has been ignoring her children’s advice to take a break.

Elected to the Lok Sabha in 1999, Sonia’s stint as Leader of the Opposition is remembered for her pugnacious speech that put Vajpayee on the mat for failing to deliver the promised one crore jobs. The no-trust motion she brought against him also pilloried the NDA for its inability to check prices and ensure internal security. Four years later, her own UPA faces identical challenges.

Sonia’s finest hour was after the 2004 elections. She stumped her detractors by walking the extra mile to rustle up allies for a Congress-led regime. She also set a new benchmark in public life by turning down the PM’s office. In Manmohan Singh, she gave the country a clean and credible administrator and Sikhs, their first Pradhan Mantri. Despite speculation, the two have had a successful partnership in which Sonia runs the party and Singh the government. As is evident from Budget 2008-09, they are working hard to make growth inclusive and socially acceptable.

But the dual leadership experiment isn’t replicated down the line. Sonia has a tough task trying to ensure that the party apparatus takes the government’s achievements — including the RTI, the NREG, the farm loan waiver — to the people ahead of the polls to state Assemblies and Lok Sabha.

Sonia may not have been able to bridge the party-government gap at the lower rungs. But she has kept the UPA coalition going. When the government and the Left disagreed on disinvestments in PSUs such as BHEL, she played a fair referee to rule that the government move violated the combine’s common minimum programme.

However, the same deftness was lacking when it came to handling the TRS, which has walked out of the UPA and the JMM, now on the fringes of the alliance. Critics say she avoids risks. Her consensual approach prolongs the party’s reaction time to situations demanding urgent responses.

But at times, the fault lies with party managers. She made a virtue of one such lapse by seeking re-election from Rae Bareli following charges that she held an office of profit as chairperson of the National Advisory Council. The courageous move saw her return with a margin that silenced her critics and saved the party and the government a lot of embarrassment.

Both supporters and opponents give Sonia credit for the UPA’s notable policy moves — RTI, NREG, Bharat Nirman and the Sachar report on minorities.

As she steps into the second decade of leading the party, Sonia’s biggest challenge is the Congress’ revival in UP, Bihar and West Bengal that account for 162 Lok Sabha seats. The task is an uphill one, involving the recreation on the ground of the party’s pre-Mandal support base of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. In the short run, she must focus on ensuring the party’s success in the year-end Assembly polls while keeping the UPA coalition intact for meeting the exigencies of government formation after the 2009 general elections.

Easier said than done, especially when the PM wants the Indo-US nuclear deal that the Left isn’t in a mood to back.

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