Sonia Gandhi’s first ever full-blown political rally was in Maharashtra – in the tribal district of Nandurbar. Sharad Pawar was astonished at the numbers the adivasis turned up in to hear Mrs Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law. Even Sonia was so overwhelmed by them that she got her helicopter pilot to fly round at least thrice in circles over the ground at low height as she leaned out of her chopper to wave to the crowds. People watching from below had their hearts in their mouths, thinking she might tip over and fall to the ground. But, clearly, falling to the ground, any which way, was never Sonia Gandhi’s destiny.
Her next meeting in Maharashtra was in Vidarbha and it was clear she was not a one-rally wonder. This time it was farmers and their wives who thronged all the roads that led to her political rally in Akola. That’s when I heard them chant her name in a fashion that convinced me she was here to stay. They called her Sonabai (a common name in villages of Maharashtra), saying they had come to take their first look at Indirabai’s soonbai (daughter-in-law).
Her subsequent Kasturchand Park rally in Nagpur – which got her almost double the crowds that Atal Behari Vajpayee had at the same venue two days earlier – and the closing Shivaji Park rally in Bombay, which Bal Thackeray did his best to double but couldn’t, convinced me that Sonia Gandhi was soon coming of age and that there would be no stopping her by anyone.
The Congress, I recall, had virtually lost that election. Before Sonia stepped onto the scene, one Congressman had told me, “Hamari dhoti utar gayi hai aur hum sadak ke kinaare aa kar baith gaye hain (We are naked and sitting by the roadside right now).” But taking charge of the campaign midway through the election (Sitaram Kesri was the Congress president then), the Congress came in from behind to post its best result ever, winning 44 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra. Those numbers alone gave the Congress a decent opposition showing (it had just 114 MPs in that Lok Sabha and, without Maharashtra, would have touched double digits for the first time since Independence). Pawar, naturally, gravitated to the post of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
At the Congress’s Nasik convention soon after, Sonia Gandhi was generous in giving full credit to Pawar for that victory. But then that victory went to his head, he began to believe in his own legend and thought he could pull it off again on his own: Pawar split the Congress, mid-1999. At the subsequent Lok Sabha polls, his Nationalist Congress Party got just six Lok Sabha seats, the Congress about double that number. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was the greater beneficiary of that split.
Through that turmoil, Sonia Gandhi, I noticed, learnt to pronounce ‘Shivaji’ correctly, from how she had said ‘Shivji’ at her Nandurbar rally, drawing a lot of flak from critics who said she didn’t even know who Maharashtra’s hero was, properly. “I am not the only one responsible for the Congress’s revival,” she told a couple of us at a dinner hosted in her honour by Pawar before the split. “There is a long line of leaders before me and it is their combined effort that has helped me take the party forward.”
Coming soon after the comment giving all credit to Pawar for winning Maharashtra, we all thought that was both generous and modest. That dinner, I recall, where a lot of her party men were present was also one where they began to change their views about her.
Earlier, I had noticed, Congressmen despaired about being stuck with a person of foreign origin (POFO) as their party president. Some uncharitable ones also made remarks like, “Ab hamein bhi angrezi mem laani hogi (We will also have to marry a foreigner now). We just cannot follow what she says.”
These are the types who had hoped that the BJP would pass the POFO bill, as they had promised, to keep people like Sonia Gandhi out of office. In fact, many Congressmen had been bigger votaries of the bill because they thought the act would give them the best of both worlds: keep a Nehru-Gandhi at the top of party affairs and keep her out of office, so that devoted Congress voters — who had taken to voting for the BJP out of outrage at the thought of a POFO becoming Prime Minister — could return to the party fold.
But the BJP saw the advantage of keeping the Congress at a permanent disadvantage with a POFO at the top. I recall BJP leaders like Pramod Mahajan equating Sonia with the likes of Monica Lewinsky — of Bill Clinton fame — in 1998 (and that was among the more printable things he had said) at a rally in a remote Gondia village where, unfortunately for him, some national journalists were present. The subsequent controversy was just what the Congress needed to make a martyr of Sonia Gandhi. Mahajan was duly chastised by other BJP leaders and the media. And when he realised he had burnt his fingers, he altogether stopped referring to Sonia Gandhi, with his curled-nose kind of contempt, as “a reader rather than a leader” or challenging her to debates with Mr Vajpayee which, clearly, Sonia would never have won.
But there was nothing more telling than the stunned look of chagrin and frustration on the faces of these fun-pokers when the Congress raced ahead of the BJP in 2004 and Sonia, on her own, did a martyr’s act by giving up her claims to the job of Prime Minister, despite urgings to the contrary by her own party men. (Among the most ridiculous comments that came out of the BJP office that day was “Who does she think she is giving up the job of Prime Minister!”)
I think that, and the fact that she resigned her seat after the office of profit controversy to re-contest and win with a thumping majority again, combined with her leading the Congress, at the last LS election, to its best victory ever since 1984, have sealed the fate of the BJP. That is why we had the most astonishing phenomenon of the BJP commenting on the Congress Party’s affairs and attempting to shame it into choosing another leader as their party president.
I wondered if I had heard correctly that the BJP had ‘challenged’ Sonia Gandhi to appoint a president outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family: clearly, whipping the Congress over its dynastic moorings repeatedly in the media has not helped the BJP any and they fear they will not stand even a glancing chance during the next elections unless the Congress replaces her with leaders as uncharismatic and bickering as their own.
But as Sonia Gandhi begins her fourth, unprecedented, term as party president, I notice, Congressmen who thought like those in the BJP before her complete transformation into a formidable opponent of the saffron forces are the ones who are falling over their feet to prostrate before 10, Janpath.
Clearly, as Maharashtra knew in 1998, ‘Sonabai’ was not just a passing phenomenon.