HOURS BEFORE passing the baton of the Congress, which she had helmed for 19 years, to her son Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi sparked a buzz within the party and outside by hinting at retirement. On Friday, speaking to reporters in Parliament, she said, “My role is to retire.” However, an alarmed Congress leadership swiftly clarified that she has retired as president of the Congress and not from public life. Speaking to The Indian Express, senior leaders said the party and its new president would need Sonia as a “mentor” and in an “advisory role”. Going one step further, former union minister Veerappa Moily said Sonia shouldn’t forget that she is also “mother to the entire cadre of the party” and should continue to play a “mother’s role”. On Saturday, Rahul will take as Congress president at a time when the party finds itself in a severe political crisis. The transition bears an uncanny resemblance to the time when Sonia took over and the party clocked its worst performance since Independence in the 1999 elections, winning 114 seats. The Congress later bounced back in 2004 and regained power in 2009 — it also won a string of Assembly elections from 2004 to 2014.
Today, as Sonia makes way for Rahul, amid a string of electoral setbacks following the Lok Sabha elections, the party’s senior leaders beseeched her to guide her son and party through tough political battles ahead. Sonia’s one-line remark on Friday was in response to a question on what role she would assume after Rahul takes over the party amid speculation that she would be a “patron”. Following the buzz triggered by the remark, Congress communication chief Randeep Surjewala tweeted: “Would sincerely request friends in the media to not rely upon innuendos. Sonia Gandhi has retired as President of Indian National Congress and not from politics. Her blessings, wisdom and innate commitment to Congress ideology shall always be our guiding light.” Speaking to The Indian Express, Moily said that Rahul as president would have his own working style, systems and processes, and that his performance in Gujarat, irrespective of Monday’s outcome, has been “wonderful”.
“He has upscaled himself to a level where the Congress and the country can look forward to his leadership. He has created that environment. He was reluctant to take over this kind of leadership. But having taken it up, he should go the full way… There is no question that there will be two centres of power. She (Sonia) may be thinking ‘why should there be two centres of power’,” Moily said. “But at the same time, her leadership is not just mechanical, it is spiritual and more emotional for the party… We also look up to her as mother of the party. So, she should continue to play that kind of a motherly role, not only mother to Rahul Gandhi… She should not forget that she is also mother to the entire cadre of the party… It will give additional strength to the party,” he said. Moily said Sonia should continue to be an “active mentor”. “That kind of an inspiration, guidance we should continue to get. And she is capable. She can inspire. Her health may not permit her, she will always be active in the mind of the people. Party is very emotionally attached to her… The 19 years was very memorable for the Congress. The party got united, before she took over the party was split,” he said.
Stressing that the party still looks up to Sonia, Moily said, “That does not mean that Rahul Gandhi as Congress president will be deterred. He will not find any discomfort, the party will not find any discomfort. She has to play an active mentor, mother’s role.” Former union minister Ashwani Kumar said that “in a tough political battle ahead, Rahul Gandhi will need Sonia Gandhi’s counsel at every stage”. “Sonia Gandhi’s judgement of people and matters will be of immense benefit to him. He will be well-advised to represent change with continuity. Transition of power in democratic politics is a process in continuum. There cannot be a rupture with the past,” he said. “The moderate centre which Sonia Gandhi espoused should be Rahul’s Bible…Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was known for aspiring for consensus and the moderate centre and Rahul will gain immensely from following her,” he said.
Asked about Sonia’s remark, Kumar said, “As an individual, we should respect her choice if she does not want any formal position. Having provided solid leadership to the Congress, she is also entitled to leisure and rest at this stage of her life.” Another former UPA minister Kishore Chandra Deo said Sonia will perform an advisory role. “As far as the Parliamentary party is concerned and even the AICC, I am sure she will be open to meeting people and giving whatever advise is needed and exchanging views on important issues,” he said. Rajya Sabha MP Renuka Chowdhury said it was not easy for party members to accept that Sonia was going to quit politics. “(She) may say. It is part of her nature, her personality is such that she has never aspired for a post or clung to power…For those of us who are around, it is not something that we can accept easily,” she said.