Nineteen years ago, with the Congress facing a crisis that was in many ways unprecedented, its new president asked her party to prepare for the long haul.
“I am no saviour as some of you might want to believe. We must be realistic in our expectations. The revival of our party is going to be a long drawn process, involving sincere hard work, from each and every one of us,” Sonia Gandhi had said in her first address as Congress president at the AICC session in April 1998.
Six years into the job, she had led the Congress back to power at the Centre. But as she bowed out Saturday, her son and successor, standing in a fundamentally altered political battlefield, stared at the gigantic task of holding his ground against the most formidable adversary their party has faced in decades, reports The Indian Express.
In his first speech as Congress president, Rahul Gandhi was combative, lashing out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attacking his alleged centralising tendencies, and accusing him of employing hate for cynical political gain.
Nineteen years ago, speaking just a month after Lok Sabha elections in which the Congress had been routed and the BJP had gained, Sonia had been introspective, though upfront, about what the party needed to do.
“I have come to this office at a critical point in the history of our party. Our numbers in Parliament have dwindled. Our support base among the electorate has been seriously eroded. Some segments of the voters, including our tribals, Dalits and minorities, have drifted from us. We are in danger of losing our central place in the polity of our country as the natural party of governance,” she had said.
It was the Congress that had lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, she had then said — “yet, as the average Indian voter gets younger and more educated, it is our party which has suffered reverses.” “To this large and influential segment of the electorate”, she had observed, “some of their disenchantment with us arises from our party being seen as soft on corruption and criminalisation. The impression has gained ground among them that we want to cling to power or achieve it at any cost”.
In her final speech on Saturday, Sonia returned in many ways to that first speech — she mentioned once again the challenges faced by her party, and reminded leaders and workers that when she took over in 1998, the Congress was in power in only three states, and was far from forming a government at the Centre.
But there was more.
“Never before have we faced the challenge that we face today,” Sonia said on Saturday. “The fundamentals of our Constitution are under attack. Our party has lost several state elections. But an exemplary energy fires our Congress workers. We are not ones to bend in fear, because our struggle is a fight for the very soul of this nation. We will never retreat from this fight.
“We are all witness to the daily attacks against freedom of speech and expression, against our culture of diversity, and its replacement with an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. The Congress must look within in order to forge ahead. If we do not stand by our principles, we will not be able to wage this fight,” she said.
For the Congress party, and especially for its old guard, it was an emotional moment.
Janardan Dwivedi, the veteran Congress general secretary, called her the supreme leader of the Congress. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the party saluted her for her magnificent leadership over the last 19 years.
Sonia herself was emotional. She recalled how she had stood nervously, her hands shaking, before a similar gathering back then. “I could not think how I would manage to take charge of this historic organisation. It was a formidable and onerous task that confronted me,” she said.
Speaking after Singh, who asked to be forgiven in case he became emotional, Sonia said she had never wanted to enter politics. While Indira Gandhi’s assassination changed “forever the course of (her) life”, with her husband’s assassination, she had lost her “anchor and support”, and gone into a shell, she said. Rajiv Gandhi had accepted the post of Prime Minister as a duty, “despite (her) pleas”, Sonia said.
“It was many years later that I could emerge from my shell. Only when I came to feel that the Congress was facing a crisis, and that communal forces were gaining strength, did I feel compelled to respond to the call of the party workers. I felt that my turning away from this summons would negate the sacrifice of my mother-in-law’s life and my husband’s life. So I entered politics — to fulfill a duty to my family, party and country.”
She recalled how the Congress had regained its strength post-1998 “with all your continued efforts”, and one after the other formed governments in more than two dozen states.
The outgoing president also spoke about her successor. “He is my son, and it would not be appropriate for me to praise him. But this much I will say — while from his very childhood he has borne the experience of violence, the savage personal attacks he has confronted since entering politics has made him a brave and stout-hearted man. I am proud of his endurance and firmness, and I am confident he will lead the party with a pure heart, patience and devotion,” she said.
Manmohan Singh described Saturday as a “unique day in the history of the Congress Party”. “You will forgive me if I become somewhat emotional on this historic occasion. I recall in a letter that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Indira Gandhi advising her that in the affairs of the state one cannot be sentimental, though one should be full of sentiment. However, I seek your forgiveness for not being able to resist an element of sentimentality…”
He recalled his association with Sonia, both as a member of the Congress Working Committee and as Prime Minister for a decade, saying her powerful leadership would be remembered in the history of the party.
“Now, that Soniaji is handing over the reins of Congress president to Rahulji, we salute Soniaji for the magnificent leadership that she has provided in the last 19 years,” Singh said. Rahul, he added, would bring to the office “a new sense of dedication, a new sense of commitment, a new sense of looking after the leadership role with courage and humility”.
While Sonia gave no indication of her plans for the future, merely saying that “as all of you go forward on your new path, I will be there to rejoice in your achievements”, Priyanka Vadra said her mother would contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Rae Bareli. The Congress has already said that Sonia has retired only as Congress president, not from politics.
“There is no question of me contesting… my mother will contest from there (Rae Bareli),” Priyanka told reporters when asked whether she would contest from her mother’s seat in 2019. She called her mother the “bravest” woman for overcoming huge difficulties during her tenure as Congress president.