Sonia, the woman behind resurgent Congress

Re-elected as Congress Chief for a record fourth term, Sonia Gandhi crafted strategies which gave back-to-back victories for the party ending eight years in wilderness.

Last Updated: Sep 03, 2010, 19:30 PM IST

New Delhi: Re-elected as Congress Chief for a
record fourth term, Sonia Gandhi crafted strategies which gave
back-to-back victories for the party ending eight years in
wilderness and steered it deftly and guided the UPA coalition
for stability at the Centre.

Holding the top party post for 12 years, Sonia(63), the
architect of the coalition route for the Congress to return to
power defeating the BJP-led NDA twice, has grown from a
reluctant politician into statesmanship like figure and an
icon for the poor.

The shy and reticent politician, who entered the Indian
scene as the demure Italian bride of Rajiv Gandhi in 1968, has
so far been unanimously elected Congress president thrice. On
one occasion, Jitendra Prasada, a senior leader from Uttar
Pradesh, had thrown his hat in the ring but failed miserably
in the polls in 2000.

A three-time Lok Sabha MP from Rae Bareli, she officially
took charge of the 125-year-old Congress party as its
President in 1998, becoming the fifth member of the
Nehru-Gandhi family and the eighth foreign-born person to
become the party chief.

She received enough flak when Congress fared badly in the
1999 general elections but gained ascendancy in the party
helping it to return to power after eight years ousting
BJP-led NDA in 2004 and form the government again in 2009.

Often attacked for her foreign origin, Sonia has
travelled far since she tentatively entered the country`s
political maelstrom in the 1990s after the assassination of
her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, she won a general
election victory for teh party in May 2004 but then took a
pass on the prime minister`s job, giving it to Manmohan
Singh.

With one deft stroke in 2004, Gandhi turned herself from
outsider to future Prime Minister to the paragon of sacrifice.
By refusing the Prime Ministership, she took the wind out of
the sails of BJP`s single-point agenda; should a foreigner
become the country`s Prime Minister.

Though critics used the move to call into question her
power, Sonia is still widely revered, especially among the
country`s millions of poor. She solidly stood behind the prime
minister with her unwavering support and worked in tandem.

The campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha elections last year
saw the naturally shy Sonia take on leaders of rival BJP with
aplomb blunting their venomous attacks on the party and
Manmohan Singh.

Sonia seems to have shed her formerly taciturn manner,
routinely working the crowds at political meetings and
displaying a more combative approach.

After Rajiv`s death, Sonia became reclusive, but she
later returned to public life ready to serve.

Sonia Maino, the daughter of a small building contractor
who was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family near
Turin, was eventually persuaded to pick up the torch and
became the leader of the Congress party in 1998, giving it a
Gandhi figurehead once again.

Sonia has often dismissed her foreign birth as
unimportant. She is little known in Italy and became an Indian
citizen in 1983. She said that her foreign birth might work
against her with some, but that in rural areas--especially
among the woman and the poor--she was no outsider.

"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she had
once said. "Because I am not, I am an Indian."

She first came to prominence as Prime Minister`s wife,
then as his widow, nearly two decades back.

As Sonia paved her steps slowly into the highly
influenced corridors of the Indian politics, she emerged as
Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance(UPA) in
the Lok Sabha and the leader of the Congress Parliamentary
Party. In 2004, she was named by the `Forbes` magazine the
third most powerful woman in the world. For the year 2007 she
was named among the Time magazine`s 100 most influential
people.

Born on December nine, 1946 in a middle class family in
Italy, she went to the UK in 1964 to study English at the Bell
Educational Trust`s language school in the city of Cambridge.
It was here that during a certificate course she had a
chance meeting with Rajiv, the elder son of the then Prime
Minister Indira Gandhi.

Sonia earlier used to avoid political happenings and
served as the perfect housewife. Her involvement with Indian
public life began after the assassination of her mother-in-law
and her husband`s election as Prime Minister.

At times she was also involved in looking after her
husband`s constituency of Amethi. In 1984, she actively
campaigned against her sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi who was at
that time contesting against Rajiv in the constituency of Amethi.
Initially reluctant to enter politics, the dwindling
position that the Congress was facing along with the revolts
of many top ranking Congress leaders forced Sonia to
reconsider her decision.

She had resisted Congress attempts to persuade her to
step into Rajiv`s shoes and eschewed politics for several
years. In the Calcutta Plenary Session of the Congress in the
year 1997 she finally joined the Congress Party as a primary
member.

Eventually, in 1998, Sonia agreed to become more
involved in the party, but her initial efforts were
overshadowed by Congress` humiliating defeat at the hands of
the BJP in the 1999 election.

During her tenure as the Leader of the Opposition, she
was firm in her responsibility and led the party to a thumping
victory in the 2004 Parliamentary elections. In the newly
created UPA headed by the Congress, she became the
Chairperson.
In a minor setback, Sonia was embroiled in the Office of
Profit controversy and resigned from the Lok Sabha and also as
Adviser of the National Advisory Council.

According to electoral laws, an elected person cannot
hold an office of profit (meaning paid posts). She was,
however, re-elected from her constituency in Rae Bareli in May
2006 by a margin of over four lakh votes and has never looked
back.

PTI