Rahul Gandhi, newly elected president of India's main opposition Congress party, kisses the forehead of his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi after taking charge as the president during a ceremony at the party's headquarters in New Delhi, India, December 16, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Altaf Hussain
Rahul Gandhi kisses the forehead of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, after taking charge as president of the Indian National Congress during a ceremony at the party's headquarters in New Delhi on December 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Altaf Hussain

Growing up in Turin, Italy, in the 1960s, she wanted to be a flight attendant. On December 16, Sonia Gandhi stepped down from the office of the president of the Indian National Congress, a post once held by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Sonia Gandhi served for more than 19 years, the longest term anyone has held. The period saw the Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, govern India from 2004 to 2014.

Faced with opposition pressure that she shouldn’t be India’s prime minister since she was not born Indian, she instead appointed her technocrat colleague Dr Manmohan Singh to head the government.

By the end of that decade, the United Progressive Alliance was  discredited with corruption scandals, high inflation, nationwide protests and the perception that it was too arrogant to care about public opinion.

When Manmohan Singh lost his job as India’s prime minister in 2014, he said history would judge him more kindly than the media or the opposition. But few in India have asked how will history judge Sonia Gandhi? She became somewhat of an elder statesman who faced no criticism and no critical evaluation.

Her party, its leaders, her son Rahul Gandhi, who has succeeded her and Singh have all faced extensive criticism, even abuse.

Nobody questions Sonia Gandhi: not her political rivals, her disgruntled colleagues, her detractors in public life, or a noisy media which is not favorable to her party these days. Some call it the omerta code of Delhi, a reference to the Italian code of honor that places importance on keeping silent. The worst that anonymous Internet trolls say about her is to question her claim of having become Hindu by pointing to her Catholic background.

A remarkable journey

It is difficult not to be swayed by her remarkable story.

She fell in love with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge in 1965 – married him and moved to India in 1968. In 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot dead. Then Sonia’s husband became prime minister but he, too, was assassinated in 1991. Non-Gandhi leaders ran the party poorly for the next seven years. They didn’t have the authority or the stature of the Gandhis and senior leaders began to leave.

Gandhi family loyalists persuaded Sonia Gandhi to enter politics in 1998. The sitting president was unceremoniously thrown out, his office taken over against his will and a computer printout pasted outside: “Sonia Gandhi, Congress President.” Initially, she had a tough time overcoming the “foreign origin” barb her political rivals would throw at her, but soon managed to bring the Congress to power in a coalition government in 2004. It won another term after that.

It must count as one of the world’s most remarkable love stories. An encounter in a Cambridge café led her to become India’s most powerful woman. The young girl from Italy fell in love, lost her husband in her forties, wanted to live a quiet life but was forced to save her late husband’s faltering political party, leading it back to power for two successive general elections, all of it with grit and grace.

Success or failure?

When historians look back at Sonia Gandhi’s 20 years as Congress President, they might be less swayed by her personal story.

They will look at the numbers and notice that her leadership saw the Congress reduced to only 44 seats in the lower house of the parliament – less than a tenth of the strength of 543 seats. When she took over in 1998, a time when people thought the Congress was on an irreversible decline, the party had 141 seats.

The second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was such a disaster that Narendra Modi became the first leader to earn a simple majority in the general elections, a feat last achieved by Sonia Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv.

Since then, Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party has been winning one state election after another, showing it is serious about its stated goal of wiping out the Congress party. By contrast, Sonia Gandhi’s 20 years as Congress President saw the party only lose many states, popular regional leaders and party workers.

During those 10 years in power, Congress behaved as though it would never lose. In 1998, Congress had 28% seats in state assemblies. In 2017, it came down to 19%.

In the 1998 general elections, the party won 26% of votes. This poor performance was the reason she was brought in to the party. In 2014, her last general election, the the party’s share fell to 19%.

At best, she may be given credit for not letting Congress slip any further than when she took over – but only until 2014. From that point onwards stability disappeared and the party’s fortunes continue to plummet.

Power without responsibility

By being a prime minister’s boss, she exercised power without responsibility. The prime minister took the flak, she only took credit. Singh’s ministers undermined his political authority by constantly running to Gandhi. Instead of making Singh more powerful, she weakened him further by heading the National Advisory Council, a body that took credit for several landmark pieces of legislation.

By the second term in power, this system led to complete chaos, with ministers more powerful than the Prime Minister calling the shots as Sonia Gandhi dealt with her cancer and her son Rahul Gandhi unable to rise to the occasion. Eventually, the government collapsed, leaving the Congress party in pieces.

Singh was ridiculed for not responding to charges made against his government, but Sonia Gandhi has spoken up so rarely it seems she isn’t even a public figure. She gave election speeches when required but on the fall of UPA-2 or the decline of the party she does not feel the need to defend herself – and nobody asks her to. The last interview she gave was about her mother in law, the late Indira Gandhi.

It was Sonia Gandhi’s political responsibility to articulate a defence of her party and its government. If her illness prevented her, she should have handed over the party’s reins to Rahul Gandhi. Or someone else if Rahul wasn’t ready.

Reluctant mother

After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, her son became the party’s face. In 2013, Rahul took over as the party’s vice president. Just as Sonia let Singh take the flak for issues of governance, she let her son  take responsibility for the party’s decline without giving him full power to run the show.

Her cohort of elder statesmen, the men and women who don’t contest or win elections but strategize for clever coalitions, was reluctant to let Rahul take over the reins in a hurry. The last few years have seen Congress unable to make quick decisions, stuck between an impatient young successor and an old guard keen on maintaining the status quo.

The world thought of Rahul Gandhi as an inept member of a dynasty, which he arguably may be. But his fellow young leaders, many of them from dynasties too, privately say the old guard won’t give Rahul control. They fear forced retirement as Rahul would probably put together his own team.

For three reasons – inability to revive the party, undermining the prime minister’s political authority, and delaying the transition of party leadership – history will judge Sonia Gandhi more critically than India’s intelligentsia does today.

Shivam Vij

The author is a freelance journalist.