OPINION | Sonia Gandhi's Foreign Origin: When a Maratha Strongman Rebelled Against First Family of Congress
As Sonia Gandhi Passes the Baton of Congress Presidency to Her Son Rahul Gandhi, News18 Revisits Her Career in Indian Politics. This is First Article in the Five-Part Series.
Sonia Gandhi (R), confers with party leader Sharad Pawar, before the start of a party meeting in New Delhi. (Reuters)
“We have 272 and more are coming” — these were the words used by Sonia Gandhi before the media in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan after pulling down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government by just one vote in early 1999, triggering a political upheaval, including in the Congress party.
The dramatic announcement by Sonia virtually projected her as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Grand Old Party. This had shocked many both within and outside the party, finally culminating in a rebellion by Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar.
That was April 21, 1999. She met the then President KR Narayanan and staked the claim within a year after joining active politics. Sonia’s famous remarks were a bolt from the blue for Pawar as he was the Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and was not consulted, showing her utter distrust in the Maratha strongman.
Sonia’s another mistake was that she had taken the support of the Samajwadi Party for granted, thinking that Mulayam Singh Yadav would be forced to side with the anti-BJP forces willy-nilly.
Those were the turbulent days. The Nehru-Gandhi family was out of power and isolated in the party from 1991 to 1998. I was covering the Congress and the Parliament, trying to understand compulsions of coalition politics and importance of regional parties at the Centre.
It was a fact that Pawar was a Congress heavyweight whose strategy, campaigning and election management had helped the party in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in which the Congress and its allies had won over 40 of the total 48 seats in Maharashtra alone. He was the natural choice for the post of Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Besides, his good equations with regional parties especially the Bahujan Samaj Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had proved crucial in defeating the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government during the floor test in the Lower House on April 17, 1998.
But these qualities created rivals for him in his own party. They had succeeded in creating a rift between him and Sonia who had gone to Rashtrapati Bhavan alone on April 21, 1998, to tell the then President that she had numbers required to form a government.
AICC managers who believe in drawing room politics and manoeuvring have always been scared of mass leaders, as they felt insecure. They amended the constitution of Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) to ensure that no body other than Sonia Gandhi could become the Prime Minister if the Congress manages numbers. They had undermined the authority of the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha several times to show that CPP chairperson is more important than the Opposition Leader even if she was not a member of either of the House in Parliament.
I was watching these developments and sensed growing rift between elected leaders and Sonia Gandhi’s coterie. A meeting of the CPP was called in the absence of Sharad Pawar to amend its constitution and remove the obstruction in Sonia Gandhi’s path. Pranab Mukherjee proposed her name and it was endorsed by those present in the meeting. Sonia appointed Pawar as the Leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha and Dr Manmohan Singh as the Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha.
But this was the beginning of distrust between Sonia and self-made leaders like Pawar, Sangma and ambitious leaders like Rajesh Pilot, Jitendra Prasada and others who failed to find place in the new coterie.
In his book ‘On My Terms’, Sharad Pawar says “Though I was among those few who invited Sonia Gandhi to become Congress president, there was little warmth between us. At best our relations were cordial. She relied very heavily on just two or three people for running the party. There was some uneasiness within the Congress that the party had won maximum number of Lok Sabha seats from my home state, Maharashtra.”
The rebellion by Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar was not an emotional act but had a long history which showed how top leadership of the party was uncomfortable with leaders of mass appeal, regional heavyweights and those who refused to be the coterie.
Before this rebellion, Mamata Banerjee quit the Congress and floated her own Trinamool Congress which would one day end the long rule of Marxists in West Bengal on its own. Before that G K Moopnar had formed the Tamil Manila Congress in Tamil Nadu and got a reelection in the HD Deve Gowda government at the Centre.
But the Congress (Tiwari) led by N D Tiwari and Arjun Singh and the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress floated by Madhavrao Scindia did not last long. We were watching developments in the Congress and rise of the BJP and regional parties in the post Mandal and Ayodhya period which had made the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty virtually irrelevant.
In the Congress, Pawar was not the only the PM aspirant. Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and ND Tiwari had been wanting to get the post by remaining in the good books of Sonia Gandhi. Even PA Sangma was confident that Sonia could back his candidature for being a tribal Christian. But her claim of the support of 272 MPs and Arjun Singh’s statement that “Migratory birds are coming” had not only upset the aspirants but also made them aware of the ambitions of Sonia.
While Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari had failed miserably in their calculations, Pranab Mukherjee managed to become Rashtrapati with the help of BJP allies — the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (U) led by Nitish Kumar and the UPA partners, compelling Sonia to back his candidature.
Sharad Pawar had realized that he had no future in the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi. Her interference in his parliamentary works, her loyalists’ attitude towards Leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha and nominations of Congress members to different parliamentary committees were the glaring examples of how Sonia Gandhi had no faith in Pawar and wanted to cut him to size.
What turned out to be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back was the appointment of Prataprao Bhosale, a friend-turned-foe of Pawar, as the Maharashtra PCC President. Before the final break up, Pawar had hosted a party for the journalists at his residence at Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Road in New Delhi but didn’t given any clue about the impending rebellion.
In the CWC meeting which saw Sonia being attacked for her foreign origin, Pawar writes in his book: “On 15 May 1999, the Congress president called a meeting of the CWC. For no apparent reason, she suddenly pulled out a sheet of paper and read aloud: ‘I was born outside India. If this becomes an issue in the campaign, how would it impact our party’s performance in the election?’ She requested CWC members to voice their opinions candidly. Arjun Singh was the first to speak. ‘You may be a foreigner by birth but you become a domicile of this country after marriage. You did not leave even after your husband and mother-in-law were assassinated. Just as you embraced this country, the people of India also have accepted you as one of them. For them, you are the Rashtra Mataa (the mother of the nation). You alone deserve to lead the nation and the party.’
Arjun Singh more or less set the tone of the speeches that followed. AK Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni went all out to express their loyalty.
Then came the turn of PA Sangma. He was believed to be very close to Sonia. So what he said was totally unexpected for many. “There is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin will be made a big issue in the election. It will be foolish on our part to say there will be no impact if we are criticized for choosing a foreigner to lead us when the party has so many able people. We shall have to devise a strategy to counter the criticism,” he said.
The entire CWC listened to him in rapt attention. A senior member tried to interject but Sangma silenced him immediately by retorting that it would be in everybody’s interest if he was allowed to speak without any interruption. When Tariq Anwar’s turn came, he concurred with Sangma. After a few others spoke, it was Pawar’s turn.
He writes in his memoir: ‘I said the people of India will not forget that the Gandhi family has contributed a lot to this country. Secondly, a large number of people in the country support the Congress because they acknowledge with gratitude the supreme sacrifices made by Indiraji and Rajiv Gandhi. Therefore, we shall be able to counter effectively the opposition parties’ campaign against Soniaji’s foreign origin. In that sense, I agree with what Sangma said. We must meet the opposition campaign head on. But it will be our gross mistake to presume that the opposition will not campaign on the foreigner issue.’ Pawar cited an incident in Mumbai University where a girl student asked him why the Congress couldn’t find a leader of Indian origin.
What followed on was for everyone to see.
(Author is a senior journalist who covered Congress party for over three decades.)
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