No matter how much the opposition ridicules her as a foreigner who has little understanding of the ground realities in India, it can not be denied that it was she who had saved a rudderless ship at a time of great crisis. It is said that the Gandhis have made the Congress their fiefdom, but history says in the late 1990s, a Gandhi was indeed required to bring the party back on the track.
The initial grip gradually loosened no doubt, but the onus lies more on the organisational weakness of the party as a legacy of the Indira Gandhi era rather than on Sonia Gandhi.
From a housewife to a politician
Sonia Gandhi had never thought that she would have to lead a party which was shaped by her in-laws. From 1968 when she had arrived in India till the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the elder bahu of the Gandhis was just another loving and caring woman who watched the family undergoing successive traumas since 1980.
Sonia, who was hailed as a more 'Hindu wife material' than the other daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi by Khuswant Singh, was closely attached to Indira Gandhi, her mother-in-law. It was the death of Sanjay Gandhi that the family equation had underwent a change for the first time. Indira's loneliness and Rajiv's entry into politics had brought a housewife ignorant of political affairs close to the hard game.
Sonia was left devastated after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 and it was believed at that point of time that the Gandhis were history.
The Narasimha Rao government's new economic and foreign policies and the scams and then Sitaram Kesari's taking over as the party chief had created a gap that made the Gandhis look a spent force. But analysts believe it was rather an essential hiatus for the first family to come back with a bang.
Why a reluctant Sonia decided to join politics finally?
The Congress performed poorly in polls under Rao and Keshari in the mid and late 1990s. The party was on the verge of a collapse for several veteran leaders had also started to pull out after feeling discouraged by Kesari's leadership. Leaders like Pranab Mukherjee, AK Antony, Jitendra Prasada, Digvijaya Songh, Sharad Pawar and others started to look at the first family to revamp the party's chances.
Leader like Arjun Singh also told Sonia Gandhi that the probe into Rajiv Gandhi's death would remain incomplete of she did not take up the reins and follow up the matter. This was perhaps a psychological factor that Rahiv's widow could not ignore.
Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi also became more lonely once Priyanka got married in February 1997. Moved by the partymen, she believed that the Congress would collapse if there was no urgency on her behalf and she could not afford to see her husband's dream of a strong Congress fading away.
Hence, she obliged and once she exhibited her willingness, it was just a matter of time that the Congress leaders overthrew Kesari from the president's post. This 'constitutional coup' in the party in March 1998 to bring back a Gandhi back to the helm was not something that surprised the country. But, the difference was that Sonia did not force it like, perhaps her mother-in-law would have done. The party paved her way to the top.
Sonia Gandhi, who was particularly upset with the rise of the communal forces, made her first move in politics on Decmber 28, 1997, the day when the party turned 112, and on January 11 next year, she appeared at the site where Rajiv was assassinated to campaign for the polls that year.
It was on this occasion that she had wanted to regain the faith of the poor, tribals and the minorities, something the Congress had lost over the years. The leader had initially thought of limited interference in the party affairs but soon found that it was not possible. She was also supported around this time by her son Rahul Gandhi, who left his job in London to return.
What Sonia did as the party president
Sonia Gandhi started her innings as a keen student of politics and not just a master. She let her ideology clear at the Pachmari declaration in 1998 and in a series of conclaves that followed in various cities, she learnt with issues of governance and pro-people policies.
She had also taken interest in issues like drinking water, gender equality, national security and environment. The period between 1998 and 2004 was a time of resurgence for the Congress under a fresh leadership.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi's legacy
1. She broke the norms by bypassing the Congress Working Committees (CWCs). According to journalist Rasheed Kidwai, since Sonia Gandhi did not have a 'sense of entitlement and felt wary of flattery', she did not like to be surrounded by yes-men always. The CWCs were essentially filled up with such people.
2. She always called up important party leaders while taking a decision and not imposed something unilaterally.
3. She stressed written work in the party instead of verbal. This was something her husband also did in his time.
4. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Sonia never toyed with the chief ministers of the Congress states and she met the CMs even when the Congress was not in power.
5. She confirmed an ideological foundation in terms of economic reforms and secularism. It was like revisiting the Nehruvian days for the party.
6. Sonia Gandhi, to borrow from Kidwai, started an NGO-style functioning to reach the positive effects to the people. It was this style of functioning which saw projects like NREGA and Right to Information Act come into reality.
7. Admitted the need to engage in coalition politics at the Hyderabad session in 2006.
8. Kept in touch with the Opposition leaders always, whether it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Amar Singh or anybody else. Till recently too, we have seen her consulting Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee during finalising the name of the presidential candidate. That despite the two parties not sharing a good relation even when they were allies in the governance.
9. Initially, Sonia Gandhi had tried to nurture talents in the party but gave up the practice following the revolt by the likes of Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar against her foreign origin.
10. She pushed the National Development Council.
Choosing Manmohan Singh as the prime minister
This was perhaps the best move that Sonia Gandhi had made in 2004 after turning down the post for herself, for she had feared that civil tension could threaten the country if she became the prime minister.
She chose Manmohan Singh not only for the latter is a man of high academic reputation and shared similar economic thoughts, but because he was known to be an apolitical man in an otherwise faction-ridden party. Sonia had even ignored senior people like Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee for the post.
The late Madhav Rao Scindia had a dislike for Singh becoming the PM but his sudden death meant that the episode went on peacefully. The two chose professionals for the party to give more meaning to its functining. The Sonia-Manmohan partnership clicked well for the party for six-and-half-years till the series of scams started plaguing the party.
Assessment of Sonia's leadership
Sonia Gandhi's undertaking the hardship to transform herself from a housewife into a politician has been a remarkable effort. It was a much more difficult job for her to lead the Congress unlike Indira Gandhi for the Congress was a much more stronger entity when the latter took over and there was no strong opposition as such.
Sonia Gandhi's task was difficult for not only she had to revive the party from scratch but also had to serve the changed aspirations of today's India. In 2013, leaders like Narendra Modi have responded better to the new ideals while the Congress has largely remained non-progressive. This has been a major drawback of Sonia Gandhi's leadership.
The acute shortfall of renewed thinking in the party circles have brought a sense of stagnation and because most of the Congress leaders today do not command a high mass support and moral authority, the government led by the party has become too-much dependent on bureaucracy.
The technocrat-bureaucrat combination has not served the UPA II government well. It is only because the Opposition has remained fragmented and fragile that the weak government of Manmohan Singh, who himself has failed to assert himself, is getting away with ease. Lack of leaders have also made the party struggle in managing crisis.
The party is over-dependent on strategy-making and adhocism instead of a long-term planning, something which Sonia Gandhi had aimed for once but could not sustain. The national economy stagnated and also the coalition politics faultered. Reasons are not difficult to understand. Sonia Gandhi herself was an adhoc president of the party. She did whatever she could to her best. Others did not support her.