Much is parallel between the times of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi’s anointment as president of the Congress party. In 1998, when Sonia took over the reigns of Congress, the party was going through its worst phase facing challenges from both – inside and outside the party. On the electoral front, it had lost the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 and 1998 – first time in history that party lost for two consecutive terms. Also, it was reduced to its lowest number in Lok Sabha at 144. From inside, the party was facing severe leadership and infighting crisis. In particular, the high profile May 1995 defection of Arjun Singh and Narayan Dutt Tiwari to form the new All India Indira Congress (Tiwari) party had shocked the party from within. There were reports of differences between the camps of Sharad Pawar (Parliamentary Party chief) and Sitaram Kesri (then Congress President) – the two leaders who had the charge of party affairs in their hands. Also, the preceding Narasimha Rao government had faced grave corruption charges – leading to the resignation of seven sitting Cabinet ministers. Apprehensions were high that Congress might split into various regional parties and become irrelevant in country’s politics.
Yet, Sonia came-in and was able to revive an ailing Congress.
In September 1998, Congress party chose Panchmari, a hill station in Madhya Pradesh as the destination for party’s ‘Vichar Manthan Shivir’ ( or brainstorming session) – first large-scale party meet under Sonia Gandhi to chalk out a strategy for forthcoming Madhya Pradesh elections and party’s revival in the entire country. Yusuf Ansari, the author of ‘Triumph of will, Sonia Gandhi’, has compared the importance of the meet with that of Narora Session of 1974 and Bombay Session of 1986.
After much deliberation from the Congress, came Sonia Gandhi’s historic address to the party workers. “Some of us often see only the dark side. I have neither the ‘all is well’ and so ‘sit back hand in hand’ attitude nor do I see despair and defeat all around. We must harbour neither of these in our minds. Neither complacence nor pessimism will behove us. We have to look forward to the future. We have to look forward to the future. We have to learn from the past. Not remain stuck with it”
Her speech carried a calm and poised vision for the future of the party unhindered by the fact that it was perhaps going through its worst phase since inception. The tone and content of the speech was surprisingly realistic and missed the overtone which overzealous newcomers are prone of making. The party won Madhya Pradesh elections with an overwhelming majority and Digivijaya Singh was made the chief minister once again.
It’s a fact that Congress is much-weaker today in comparison to its state of affairs in 1998, also it faces its strongest opponent in history – BJP and its leader Narendra Modi. As Sonia has announced plan to retire and Rahul is all set to takeover the party, the latter can only look back at history and try to learn and replicate the path followed by legends of his party.