In a stunning move that could alter the face of Indian politics in the coming months, Sonia Gandhi tonight quit as Congress president, leaving her opponents agape and her followers aghast.
Her resignation ? 15 months after she took over ? came in response to the Sharad Pawar-led clique questioning her right to lead the nation because of her foreign origin and lack of experience in public life.
The Congress Working Committee (CWC), numb with shock after Sonia Gandhi?s decision, unanimously rejected her resignation. But sources close to 10 Janpath said she is unlikely to review her stand, which, they said, had been ?provoked by a staggering display of xenophobia surrounding her foreign origin?.
The Congress now faces the prospect of being rendered leaderless before what could be its toughest electoral test. If Sonia Gandhi remains adamant, the search for a successor would not only prove difficult, but could also lead to another split in the party.
The CWC, chaired in Sonia Gandhi?s absence by Pranab Mukherjee, fell at her feet, pleading with her to rescind. Till late tonight, however, Sonia Gandhi stood her ground. The decision to step down was her own, made after consulting son Rahul and daughter Priyanka. She did not take close friends or senior partymen into confidence.
?I do not think she will review it. Sonia Gandhi is not into political gimmicks. She has lived up to the highest traditions of the Congress of making selfless sacrifice which were practised by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi,? a close family friend said.
The CWC met this evening amid high drama outside the 24 Akbar Road headquarters of the AICC. As partymen raised slogans hailing Sonia Gandhi and condemning Pawar, a sombre Congress president arrived to attend the meeting. However, she excused herself soon after, saying she would prefer to stay away as the meeting would discuss her.
Soon after her departure, her personal secretary V. George came to the meeting carrying a letter from her, which announced her resignation. The letter was dated 15th May, the day the trio fired the salvo. Sources close to her said she had decided to resign as soon as she received Pawar?s letter on Saturday.
Sonia Gandhi struck at Pawar and his associates, saying: ?I am pained by their (Pawar and others?) lack of confidence in my ability to act in the best interest of the party and the country. In these circumstances, my sense of loyalty to the party and duty to my country compelled me to tender my resignation from the post of party president.?
Sources close to 10 Janpath said even if Pawar and Sangma now withdraw their remarks, Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to review her decision. ?She does not want to be seen as power-hungry,? a party leader said. He said Sonia Gandhi, being a determined person, had not taken the decision in a huff or under emotional stress.
Family friends said Sonia Gandhi was ?pained? at the growing attacks on Christians since she took over as party chief. In fact, she had wondered in conversations with several persons if there was a link between her political role and the onslaught. She had also been disturbed by the BJP?s consistent attacks on her origin, but appeared determined to fight as long as the party was behind her.
However, the personal attack by partymen came as the last straw. Through yesterday and today, Sonia Gandhi kept asking partymen where she went wrong and why senior leaders like Pawar and Sangma took such an extreme step. ?She did not want the issue of her foreign origin to come in the way of Congress prospects,? a party leader said.
At the same time, the demand for stringent action against Pawar, Sangma and Anwar is growing. During the day, there were protests outside 24 Akbar Road. Partymen raised slogans like ?Tariq, Sangma aur Pawar, inko maro jute char (Pawar, Sangma and Tariq should be clubbed with slippers)?.
By nightfall, most of them, including senior Youth Congress leaders, had begun a fast outside 10 Janpath to bring Sonia Gandhi back.
Pawar was working on a premise that the polls will throw up a fractured mandate. If the turn of events force him out of the Congress, Pawar feels he would be able to sew up a coalition by weaning away BJP allies like the Trinamul Congress, Lok Shakti and the Biju Janata Dal.
The BJP claimed that Sonia Gandhi?s resignation had helped it immensely. BJP Rajya Sabha MP K.R. Malkani congratulated her for ?showing wisdom? and applauded the three Congress leaders for questioning her origins. Some BJP leaders like BJP chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, V.K. Malhotra, dismissed the resignation as ?mere drama?.
May 15, 1999
At this morning?s meeting of Congress Working Committee, certain of my colleagues expressed views to the effect that my having been born elsewhere is a liability to the Congress party.
I am pained by their lack of confidence in my ability to act in the best interest of the party and the country.
In these circumstances, my sense of loyalty to the party and duty to my country compelled me to tender my resignation from the post of party president.
Though born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country. I am Indian and shall remain so till my last breath.
India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life. I came into the service of Congress party, knowing that it is the only party capable of providing India with a stable, secular, progressive and independent government. That belief remains unshakeable.
I came into the service of the party not for a position or power but because the party faced a challenge to its very existence and I could not stand idly by. I do not intend to do so now.
I have been privileged to receive the love and affection of ordinary Congressmen and women from all over the country and I will continue to serve the party as a loyal and active member to the best of my ability.