New Delhi: Sometime in early October 1999, an afternoon news piece from Delhi led to a huge celebration in the Congress camp in Karnataka. Sonia Gandhi, who had taken charge of the Congress just a year, ago had decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Bellary in north Karnataka along with Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
Since 1952, Bellary had been a Congress bastion and it had won every Lok Sabha election. There was no doubt over Sonia Gandhi's victory from Bellary.
Not the one to back down, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been nervously watching the developments, sprang a surprise within 24 hours, by fielding its firebrand leader Sushma Swaraj against Sonia in Bellary.
The very next day Sushma landed in Bellary, unfamiliar to her, to launch her campaign against Sonia. The Congress president had the entire Karnataka Congress backing her in the constituency. Sushma had the backing of only the local BJP and RSS cadres.
An unfazed Sushma learnt some Kannada in just 30 days and even gave public speeches in the language. Wherever she went, Sushma questioned Sonia's 'foreign' origin issue.
In that fiercely contested election, Sonia Gandhi won by a very narrow margin of 56,000 votes.
Seeing her performance, Sushma was rewarded by the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee with a Cabinet rank at the Centre. She was appointed as Information and Broadcasting minister and later Health and Family Welfare minister. Sonia took charge as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
The Bellary contest had elevated Sushma’s stature both within and outside the BJP. It helped her become a front ranking leader of the BJP.
In 2004, the BJP-led NDA lost the election. Sonia-led Congress returned to power with the help of Communists and other regional players. There was a talk of Sonia being nominated as the next Prime Minister.
However, two top BJP leaders Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj vociferously protested against it. Sushma even went to the extent of saying that she would shave her head, eat only grams and live in a hut like an ancient Hindu widow if a ‘foreigner’ Sonia Gandhi was made the Prime Minister. That statement led to a huge furore and Sushma came under sharp attack by the resurgent Congress.
The relationship between Sonia and Sushma soured over the next few years.
In 2009, the Congress-led UPA retained power at the Centre with a bigger margin. The BJP suffered yet another humiliating defeat at the hands of the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi.
In a significant development signalling a major generational shift in the leadership of the BJP, Sushma Swaraj was appointed as the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha in 2009. During UPA-2, the relationship between Sonia and Sushma was mostly cordial. The pictures of both of them shaking each other’s hands, hugging, patting on each other’s backs and sitting together became a regular feature in the media.
When Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with some difficulty Sushma got the coveted portfolio of External Affairs. She was lying low for the first year.
The multi-pronged attack of the Congress on Sushma Swaraj over the Lalit Modi controversy was unexpected even for the vociferous leader. Many had not even expected Congress to target Sushma so openly and strongly.
However, the mother-and-son duo of Sonia and Rahul surprised everybody by taking on Sushma. They demanded her ouster to allow the smooth functioning of Parliament.
Rahul even made very serious allegations of Sushma taking bribe from Lalit Modi to protect him. Sonia sarcastically said that unlike Sushma, she would have gladly helped Lalit Modi's ailing wife but without breaking the law.
In the last 16 years since Sonia and Sushma first came face to face, much water has flown under the Tungabhadra and the Yamuna.
Is it now payback time by Sonia and Rahul for Sushma's harshest comments on Sonia in the past? Some say the two don't forget personal insults and attacks easily.