In a vocation in which a week is considered a long time, 15 unbroken years borders on infinity. Sonia Gandhi completed 15 years as Congress president on Thursday. No one, not even Jawaharlal Nehru, was the president of India’s oldest political party for such a long time. Ms Gandhi has thus created a record. This is remarkable especially if it is borne in mind that when she lost her husband under tragic circumstances she was not even a member of the Congress. Such facts have been reduced to the level of trivia by what Ms Gandhi has achieved as Congress president. It is not a question of her tenure in office. When she became the president of the Congress, the party had been written off as an also-ran in Indian politics. From that apparently irretrievable position, she rebuilt the party. The electoral dividends that followed made the Congress twice the single largest party in Parliament and thus the head of the United Progressive Alliance, which formed the government. This was no mean achievement for a person who had begun as a completely apolitical person.
Ms Gandhi has never denied that she was reluctant to assume the leadership of the Congress. She finally did so out of a sense of responsibility towards her husband and her mother-in-law. Obviously, she could not bear to see the party — for which they had lost their lives — fall to pieces under opportunistic leaders. It could not have been an easy decision for Ms Gandhi. Over the years, her party members and millions of Indians have come to acknowledge that Ms Gandhi does not shy away from taking difficult and even unpopular decisions. When the prime minister’s job was hers for the taking in 2004, she refused to be persuaded by the popular clamour all around her. She listened to her inner voice and turned down the prime ministership. She has thus made it clear that she is not in politics for the lure of office and power. This has enhanced her image.
Her successes as president of the Congress should not deflect attention from the problems within the party. The most important of these is the culture of sycophancy that Ms Gandhi has not even addressed. This culture has two serious consequences. First, it hinders the rise of powerful regional leaders that was once upon a time a strength of the Congress. The rise in popularity of any leader is seen as a threat to the central leadership, in other words, to Ms Gandhi. Second, and following from the first, is the assumption that only Rahul Gandhi can succeed his mother as president of the party. The dynastic principle is thus being taken for granted in a political party that has been wedded to democracy since its inception. These are serious issues that Ms Gandhi will have to confront and resolve as she continues being president of the Congress. The real challenge before the Congress is whether it will be able to adapt itself to changing times. This is a formidable challenge before a 128-year-old party.