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The reluctant Gandhis: Congress’s only hope

After exploring and weighing its options for two-and-a-half months, the Congress brought back Sonia Gandhi as its interim president for an unspecified tenure. With no deliberation on holding an election for the next president, Sonia Gandhi will lead the Congress through crucial assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana this year, and possible also Delhi and Bihar next year.

Sonia Gandhi accepted the responsibility reluctantly, reports say. This reluctance on the part of Gandhis have been there for more than half a century but the Congress has, somehow, managed to put them in the leadership role.

The family traces its political power from an immensely successful lawyer of pre-Independence India Motilal Nehru, who was an active political activist and freedom fighter. He rose to be the Congress president a couple of times. His son Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, was a full-time political activist and freedom fighter.

Unlike her forebears, Indira Gandhi showed reluctance on on a couple of occasions to be in the thick of politics. Two of her letters to her friend Dorothy Norman, an American photo-journalist, bear testimony that Indira Gandhi wanted to quit politics but could not.

In 1958, when she was working as a personal assistant to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi wrote to Dorothy Norman, “I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far place in the mountains. Not caring if I ever did a stroke of work again.”

Still, a sudden turn of events in the Congress party saw Indira Gandhi assuming the party’s leadership in 1959. She would again become the Congress president in 1978 and hold the post till 1984, when she was assassinated.

The second time Indira Gandhi showed a reluctance to continue in politics came in 1960s — in the aftermath of the deaths of her husband Feroze Gandhi in 1960 and father Nehru in 1964. She wrote to Dorothy Norman about her wish to settle in London and see her children, Rajiv and Sanjay grow as normal kids.

Indira Gandhi is said to have finalised the house that she planned to make her home. But the sudden death of then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri forced her to change her mind. She turned to politics with full vigour and became the prime minister.

Of her two sons, Rajiv Gandhi was least interested in politics. Sanjay Gandhi appeared as her political heir. But the mantle passed on to Rajiv after Sanjay died in an air crash. Rajiv Gandhi’s wife Sonia was bitterly against his entry into politics but an accidental death in the family prevailed upon her wish.

If the death of Sanjay Gandhi forced Rajiv Gandhi to enter politics, the assassination of Indira Gandhi thrust him in the driver’s seat. It has been documented that Sonia Gandhi had an argument with Rajiv Gandhi over the Congress’s decision to have him as the prime minister and the party president. But the party prevailed and Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi had to set aside their reluctance.

Rajiv Gandhi continued as the Congress president till he was assassinated during the campaign for 1991 Lok Sabha election. Rendered leaderless, the Congress again turned to the Gandhis.
A Congress Working Committee (CWC) delegation led by Pranab Mukherjee, who was once considered a rival to Rajiv Gandhi, approached Sonia Gandhi to assume leadership of the Congress in 1991. But Sonia Gandhi refused.

Seven years later, however, when the Congress was in tatters, Sonia Gandhi agreed to what the party wanted. Senior party leaders such as Mani Shankar Aiyar, Buta Singh, Suresh Kalmadi and Aslam Sher Khan had deserted the Congress by the end of 1997. The BJP was on the rise and a third front was pushing the Congress to the margins.

Congress leaders Ahmed Patel, Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot among others appealed to Sonia Gandhi with a question: “How can you allow the collapse of the Congress?”

Few months later in March 1998, Sonia Gandhi assumed the role of Congress president after the CWC pushed then party president Sitaram Kesri out. Sonia Gandhi went on to become the longest-serving Congress president till she demited office in 2018, when her son Rahul Gandhi was chosen as the party chief.

Rahul Gandhi entered politics in 2004 in the backdrop of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s India Shining campaign. The common charge against Rahul Gandhi was that he was a reluctant politician. Some senior party leaders even taunted him saying, “Politics is not a part-time vocation.”

Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant politician, quit as Congress president in May this year following party’s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha election, which saw him emerging as a tough competitor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many political observers said Rahul Gandhi gained in stature during Lok Sabha election despite the Congress’s loss in the polls.

His resignation put Congress in a dilemma: How to stay afloat without a Gandhi as the leader? Attempts were made to force Rahul Gandhi to take back his resignation. But he remained adamant.

Five sub-groups were formed to gather party leaders’ views on the next president. All of them concluded that Rahul Gandhi should continue. Some of them gave a second option: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

However, Rahul Gandhi had insisted on not having another Gandhi family member as the Congress party. The CWC held a marathon meeting last week. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi recused themselves from the meeting.

In the second sitting, the CWC members came to Sonia Gandhi telling her that no party leader has got support to hold an election for the Congress president.

As a compromise between Rahul Gandhi and his supporters on one hand and the old guard — the family loyalists — on the other, Sonia Gandhi was named the interim Congress president. She, reports say, accepted the role only reluctantly.