“My job is to retire” said Sonia Gandhi, after her son Rahul Gandhi took up the reigns of the position of Congress President. Having taken over as the Congress President 19 years ago, Sonia has been the longest serving party President of the Congress. She became the president of the Congress Party seven years after her husband, Rajiv Gandhi’s death.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the year 1991, she was constantly beng asked by the Congress party members to take over the leadership of the Government. She joined politics in the year 1997 and was soon promoted to the position of party President in the year 1998. This move however, was not without controversies.
“We have 272 and more are coming”. These were the words used by Sonia Gandhi before the media in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan after pulling down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government by just one vote in early 1999, triggering a political upheaval, including in the Congress party. By making this statement, she had projected herself as a candidate for the Prime Ministers offfice. This bold move shocked the entire nation. Sonis hadn’t even consulted the Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Sharad Pawar, about this. This clearly reflected that she didn’t trust Pawar. It is a known fact that Sharad Pawar is one of the brainiest politicians in the country and often it is said that he is the Prime Minister, India never had.
It was Sharad Pawar whose strategy, campaigning and election management had helped the party in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in which the Congress and its allies had won over 40 of the total 48 seats in Maharashtra alone. He was the natural choice for the post of Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Moreover, he had always shared excellent equations with other regional and national parties. His relations with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) had proved crucial in defeating the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government during the floor test in the Lower House on April 17, 1998. However, these very qualities of Sharad Pawar had created rivals within the party and these rivals were able to create a rift between him and Sonia. These rivals, who were sycophants of Sonia Gandhi, felt insecure. They were threatened by Sharad Pawar, who was a mass leaders. So they amended the constitution of the Congress Parliamentary Party to ensure that no one other than Sonia Gandhi would become the Prime Minister, if the Congress managed the necessary numbers.
This political maneuvering finally culminated in a rebellion by Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar. In his recent book ‘On My Terms’, Sharad Pawar says “Though I was among those few who invited Sonia Gandhi to become Congress president, there was little warmth between us. At best our relations were cordial. She relied very heavily on just two or three people for running the party. There was some uneasiness within the Congress that the party had won maximum number of Lok Sabha seats from my home state, Maharashtra.”
The rebellion by Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar was not an emotional act but had a long history which showed how top leadership of the party was uncomfortable with leaders of mass appeal, regional heavyweights and those who refused to be the coterie. They were the only ones in the Party who had the honesty to state that the opposition would make an issue out of the foreign origin issue of Sonia Gandhi. They had to rebel because they did not toe the line.
The nation had to pay a price for this sycophancy.