Sonia Gandhi: the quiet, binding force behind Congress and INDIA bloc

The woman who has so skilfully managed the party - in victory and in defeat - was most reluctant to enter politics.


Published Jun 05, 2024 | 4:35 PM Updated Jun 05, 2024 | 4:35 PM

Sonia Gandhi with Rahul, Priyanka and Mallikarjun Kharge

By Sanjeev Chopra

Sonia Gandhi’s sharpest weapon, it is often said, has been her silence. It was so this election as well when the once reluctant politician and Congress leader helped forge the opposition INDIA bloc, speaking little and seldom in public but wielding enormous power.

The 77-year-old didn’t campaign this time, possibly because she has been unwell, and chose her words and moments carefully. In Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha seat she vacated, she told people that she had come to hand over her son Rahul Gandhi to them and expected voters to take care of him. The appeal may just have worked with Rahul Gandhi leading by over 3.9 lakh votes against the BJP in the constituency.

On Monday, 3 June, the day before the results when the exit polls predicting a landslide victory for the BJP-led ND dominated political discourse, she was the epitome of cool. “We have to just wait and see. We are very hopeful that our results are completely the opposite of what the exit poll is saying,” she told PTI.

And she was right.

As the Congress tots up a score of close to 100, almost double its 52 in 2019, the Italian-born is still the backstage influence, the leader who emerged as India’s most powerful during Congress rule.

Uniting the INDIA bloc

Sonia Gandhi has now entered the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan. Being the chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Sonia Gandhi continued to lead the party’s strategy both inside and outside Parliament.

Maintaining a studied low profile, she remained a binding force for the opposition as she actively participated in INDIA bloc meetings and held the opposition ranks together.

She spoke to opposition leaders, including TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, NCP leader Sharad Pawar and left leaders, while uniting them in their fight against Modi-led BJP. This helped the alliance come out as a formidable force to contend with.

She made it a point to attend almost all the INDIA bloc meetings, including in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Sonia Gandhi is the longest-serving president of India’s grand old party, having steered it for over two decades. The Congress found itself in an existential crisis but she has helped the party pull out of it. Part of this was handing the organisational reins to veteran Mallikarjun Kharge.

The woman who has so skilfully managed the party – in victory and in defeat – was most reluctant to enter politics.

When Congress leaders pressed Rajiv Gandhi to occupy the prime minister’s chair after the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi in October 1984, Sonia Gandhi begged him not to, fearful about her family’s safety.

Also Read: Brand Modi takes a beating as Rahul Gandhi’s charisma resonates in Hindi heartland

Entry into active politics

Seven years later, her fears came true. Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a terror attack during campaigning in Tamil Nadu in May 1991. It was another seven years later, when the party was in tatters at the centre and in power only in four states, that she agreed to pick up the reins of the party.

When the Congress came to power in 2004, it appeared that she would occupy the highest office in the south block, but she surprised the media and chose Manmohan Singh as the prime minister of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Today, party leaders look back at her presidency with pride, hailing unity and strength as the hallmarks of her record-breaking 19-year tenure.

Sonia Gandhi took a back seat after several rounds of illness recently, for which she had be hospitalised. She exited active Congress politics on a high note and as one of the tallest leaders of the party in recent years.

Always graceful and understated in Indian textiles that remind old-timers of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, she has over the years addressed public rallies in her accented Hindi, suitably blunting the opposition BJP’s campaign against her Italian roots. Under her stewardship, the Congress-led the centre for two terms from 2004 to 2014 and returned to power in a host of states.

The then-party president achieved this by successfully stitching electoral alliances with like-minded parties. UPA-1 and UPA II were fine examples of Sonia Gandhi’s ability to bring non-BJP forces together. Her prediction of the Congress returning at the centre on its own, made at the party’s 1998 Pachmarhi conference, never came true though.

Also Read: ‘Friends in need’ for BJP, YSRCP and BJD bite the dust at the hands of saffron party and allies

Personal life

Sonia Gandhi braved tremendous odds to earn her place in Indian politics, as she conquered the limitations of language and her foreign origin to win the hearts of the people. Born in Lusiana, Vicenza (Italy), on 9 December 1946, Sonia Gandhi met Rajiv Gandhi in England where she was studying. The young language student and the son of the then Indian prime minister were married in 1968.

Amid consequent demands from the rank and file to lead a shaky party, she entered public life in 1998, a move that was widely and loudly welcomed in the party. She was first elected as an MP from Amethi in 1999, following which she became leader of the opposition in the lower house.

As UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi took up issues related to the environment, gender, empowerment of the disadvantaged and the right to information. She has authored two books on her husband, “Rajiv and Rajiv’s World”, and has edited two volumes of letters exchanged between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Her other interests include reading, Indian art – contemporary, classical as well as tribal – handlooms and handicrafts and music. She has a diploma in conservation of oil paintings from the National Museum in New Delhi.

With the Congress back in the reckoning as a powerful opposition party, she will undoubtedly continue to play the role of mentor.

(Disclaimer: The headline, subheads, and intro of this report along with the photos may have been reworked by South First. The rest of the content is from a syndicated feed, and has been edited for style.)