Sonia Gandhi withdrew her resignation from the presidency of India’s Congress Party on May 24, after an eight-day hiatus which has strengthened her position but seriously weakened the party. She had resigned on May 17, after three senior Congress members revolted against her leadership, saying that she was not qualified for the premiership of India because of her foreign birth (she was born Sonia Maino in Italy and met Rajiv Gandhi at university) and political inexperience.
Her resignation was followed by eight days of intense debate within the party, with some arguing that she had done the correct thing, and others that she was the only leader that could save Congress at this time. The day after her resignation, and two days after the three party members wrote her the offending letter, an emergency meeting of party members from all over the country met to plead withher to reconsider her resignation. Two days later, the three offending members were expelled from the party. They were Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar.
The period during which Gandhi considered her position - which included the anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s death - saw all the extremes of emotionalism for which Indian politics is known. One group of Congress members sent her a letter written in blood, demanding she change her mind. Several others tried to burn themselves to death outside her home and in other demonstrations. All the while she refused to make any public comment except to request party members not to kill themselves for her sake. All the while also she was visited by a stream of party leaders and senior members requesting her to reconsider.
Although she has returned to the helm of party affairs, Congress has been irrevocably damaged by the episode. The three leaders who were forced out have pledged to establish an alternative party to challenge it. The Congress-virtually India’s only national political party until the relatively recent emergence of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long had deep fault lines reflecting the many divisions and schisms in Indian society itself. She is regarded by senior Congress leaders as the only leader who can lead the party to victory in the elections due in the next three or four months.
That is telling in itself. She is a middle aged woman who determinedly stayed out of politics until just eighteen months ago. Following the assassination of her husband in 1991, she was elected leader in his place without being asked. She refused to enter politics and maintained that position until last year, when she was brought in to attract support with the Gandhi name. The fact that there is no other credible political figure capable of leading the party which dominated Indian politics until recently is a damning indictment of the Party’s state.
Congress failed to put together enough support to replace the BJP in government after prime minister Vajpayee lost a vote of confidence early in May. The challenge now is to improve its presence in parliament and its standing in the country in order to be able to form a government after the autumn elections. The issue of Gandhi’s Indian-ness is sure to be raised again, not least by the BJP.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999