March 13: Sonia Gandhi completes 15 consecutive years as Congress chief on Thursday, marking the longest run in the 128-year-old party and pulling past Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
In May 1991, a few days after Rajiv’s assassination, Sonia had summoned personal aide Vincent George to send away party supporters who used to gather outside 10 Janpath every day raising the slogan Sonia lao, desh bachao (Bring Sonia, save country).
Eighteen hours after Rajiv’s death, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s apex decision-making body, met at headquarters 24 Akbar Road. Sitting cross-legged on white sheets and reclining on masnads (pillows), 12 members, two permanent and four special invitees had left the place meant for the leader vacant as a mark of respect for Rajiv.
At the end of the meeting, over a dozen of the senior leaders requested Rajiv’s widow to take over as Congress president. They included P.V. Narasimha Rao, K. Karunakaran, Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Balram Jakhar, Meira Kumar, Jagannath Pahadia, Rajendra Kumari Bajpai, H.K.L. Bhagat, Buta Singh, Ram Chandra Vikal, Sitaram Kesri, Sharad Pawar, Janardhan Reddy, Pranab Mukherjee, Jitendra Prasada, M.L. Fotedar and P. Shiv Shankar.
Arjun proposed Sonia’s name and the others seconded. Several years later, Pawar claimed he had raised a mild objection — a contention challenged by almost all those who had attended the meeting. Asked to spell out his objection, Pawar said he wanted to know if Sonia had been consulted about the responsibility.
The leaders present at the meeting disregarded the fact that Sonia was not even a “chaar anna” member of the Congress. An annual fee of chaar anna — four annas or 25 paise — was a prerequisite for membership. Mahatma Gandhi, credited with giving the Congress a mass base during the freedom struggle, had envisaged the chaar anna concept.
While the CWC made the offer, no thought was given to Sonia’s complete unfamiliarity with the methods and machinations of India’s political system.
The CWC decision was communicated to Sonia by a group of leaders that included Azad and Mukherjee. The meeting between them and Sonia lasted less than 10 minutes. Sonia did not say anything but she was reportedly taken aback by the timing of the request.
A day later, she issued a brief statement refusing to accept the post. The note read: “The tragedy that has befallen me and my children do not make it possible for me to accept the presidentship of the Congress.”
Family friends of the time insist Sonia and her children had not even considered the idea. “It was deemed insensitive on part of the CWC to have made such a gesture when Rajiv’s funeral had not taken place,” one of them said, confirming there was no discussion even among close friends about the CWC offer.
Mukherjee broke the news of Sonia’s selection to a hostile media. “She is the only person who will be able to provide leadership at this crucial juncture and, under her leadership, the future of the Congress is bright,” he said, summing up the CWC’s deliberations.
The former finance minister had an answer for everything. “How has the Congress accepted a leader who, until 1983, was not even an Indian citizen?” he was asked. He replied: “She is an Indian housewife and has been exercising her franchise in the New Delhi constituency.”
Asked if she would be projected as the next Prime Minister, Mukherjee said: “We will cross that bridge when we reach it.”
“Had Sonia been consulted? Would she accept the job?” was another question. “She will accept,” Mukherjee said stoutly. He claimed she had been consulted informally, something disputed by Sonia’s aides. Mukherjee later admitted he was misinformed.
The family faithful were just not prepared to accept Sonia’s refusal. The outgoing Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) quickly endorsed the CWC’s decision. In other words, if Sonia had accepted the offer, she would have been the party’s candidate for Prime Minister after the elections in 1991.
Eight years later, Sonia became party president, forced to take charge after a series of defeats, factionalism and ideological shifts.
Sonia’s own version is that the decision was guided by her sense of responsibility. “I have photographs of my husband and my mother-in-law in my office,” she said in an interview in 2004. “And each time I walked past those photographs, I felt that I wasn’t responding to my duty, the duty to this family and to the country. I felt I was being cowardly to just sit and watch things deteriorate in the Congress for which my mother-in-law and the whole family lived and died. So, at that point, I took the decision.”