Congress President Sonia Gandhi had many political misses from 1991 to 2004.
First she turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister when her husband Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. Then after spending years in the wilderness, she unceremoniously dumped Sitaram Kesri in an ugly battle to become Congress President in 1998.
Soon after that, she missed her chance to form the government when she just couldn’t muster up the numbers in the Lok Sabha. On the eve of the 2004 general elections, both Sonia and the Congress looked finished.
But since then, Sonia has been delivering one hit after another and has proved to be a shrewd player.
1. Turning down the premiership: In 2004 when the UPA came to power, almost everyone expected Sonia to finally become PM. The BJP, reeling from the shock of an unexpected loss, sharpened the knives and planned to take Sonia head-on.
Sushma Swaraj announced that she would shave her head and extremely stormy scenes were expected in the Lok Sabha. Sonia took the wind out of everyone’s sails by turning down the premiership. The BJP campaign became totally rudderless and it still hasn’t recovered till date.
2. Making Manmohan the PM: It is difficult to believe that anyone other than Manmohan Singh would prove to be such a consensus candidate lasting such a long time. It was a brilliant move to appoint him and Manmohan got away in the public’s eye in the cash-for-votes scam because of his clean image.
Manmohan had a large part in the UPA being re-elected in 2009. At that time the BJP failed in attacking him successfully and tarnishing his image. He is coming in for a lot of flak today but he still has a chance of being the only non-dynasty PM to complete two full terms in office.
3. Forming the National Advisory Council: Set up to implement the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA, this became a parallel cabinet which is firmly under Sonia’s control. It took a talent pool of retired bureaucrats, economists, scientists, social activists etc to implement a social change in India.
4. Launching MGNREGA: This along with Manmohan’s image was the reason why the UPA was re-elected in 2009. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act gives “a legal guarantee for one hundred days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household” across India. The rider is that they have to be willing to do public work. That kills two birds with one stone.
5. Ushering RTI: Every leader has a legacy and RTI will feature strongly in Sonia’s. The RTI Act has finally changed the way government-related information is distributed in this country. Already a lot of scams and wrongdoings have been unearthed thanks to this.
6. Evading Lokpal: Whatever her mystery illness was, Sonia was absent during the entire August Kranti and totally missed the Anna Hazare headache. She came up later and cleaned up the mess.
A constitutional amendment bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha which was defeated and she promptly blamed the BJP for the failure. In the Rajya Sabha, it couldn’t be passed due to lack of time.
The bottomline is that the Congress, the UPA and all other politicians didn’t want the Lokpal in the first place and got their way in the end. Today Anna Hazare looks like a spent force vis a vis Lokpal.
7. Making Pranab the Presidential candidate: This also killed two birds with one stone. For one, Pranab Mukherjee proved to be such a consensus candidate that he won over opposition parties like the Left and those within the NDA ranks too.
Just like she converted Pratibha Patil into a trump card in 2007, she played a similar game in 2012.
Secondly, now the decks have totally been cleared to make Rahul Gandhi the PM when the Congress comes to power again. It is rumoured that Pranab had even wanted to be PM ahead of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. Now he is headed to Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Manmohan Singh will turn 80 this year and P Chidambaram is fighting taints related to 2G and elections. Rahul automatically becomes the first choice should the Congress form a government.
8. Always staying behind the scenes: Congress President. UPA Chairperson. NAC Chairperson. Sonia has managed to concentrate a lot of power without becoming PM. But more than that is the way she has handled everything behind the scenes. She rarely speaks to the media and her Sphinx-like silence helps to keep an aura around herself. That has worked really well when the UPA has been in power.
She will face the toughest challenge of her life should the UPA lose power in the next general elections and once again Congress will find itself in the wilderness like it did in the pre-2004 period.
It will be interesting to find out if she will be able to deliver more masterstrokes in such a situation.
Also, it remains to be seen that whether her son Rahul will show the same acumen if and when he takes over the reins of the Congress party.
More by this author:
Congress: Getting it Left, Right and Centre
IPL diary: Of great chases and changing hairstyles
Coming soon: A 36-run over
India desperately requires electoral reforms
Who will be the next Prime Minister of India?
The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger. He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/