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The Constant Gardener: At 74, Sonia Gandhi Seems Resolved to Finally Retire from Job She Never Wanted

File photo of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. (Reuters)

File photo of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. (Reuters)

In 1998, as the Congress seemed to be falling apart, Sonia Gandhi was cajoled by some senior party leaders to end her vanvas and join active politics. She agreed to become party president, eventually making her the longest-serving one. Her entry into politics led to a crowd swarming her. But the crowd added to her loneliness.

They say that at 74, you should do what you always wanted to do but could not. Sonia Gandhi at 74 perhaps would be happiest being away from the heat and dust of Delhi politics. Not just because the heat and dust affects her asthma, but because a fatigue has begun to set in and the death of Ahmed Patel has left her lonelier amid the cut-throat internal feud of the Congress. Sonia Gandhi was in Goa when her “irreplaceable comrade”, as she called Patel, died. Sources say she was shattered and it has added to her desire to retire soon. A reticent neta, there are few she would open up to. Ahmed Patel was an exception.

Many years ago in an interview to News18, Priyanka Vadra had said that her mother wanted to retire and settle down in Himachal Pradesh to do some gardening. That wish of Sonia Gandhi had to be halted when Rahul Gandhi, in the aftermath of the 2019 Lok Sabha election defeat, resigned as party chief and his mother was forced to step in as interim president— a second time.

In 1998, as the Congress seemed to be falling apart, Sonia Gandhi was cajoled by some senior party leaders to end her vanvas and join active politics. She agreed to become party president, eventually making her the longest-serving one. Her entry into politics led to a crowd swarming her. But the crowd added to her loneliness.

Those close to her know her as someone who loves to be alone, at most surrounded by family and very close friends. When Sonia came to India to get married to Rajiv Gandhi, she went into a high-profile family where her mother-in-law was the prime minister of the world's largest democracy. Rajiv would travel and fly as a pilot and Sonia immersed her loneliness in household chores. But that’s also where her political education began, as she would closely observe how Indira Gandhi dealt with dissent and was at times ruthless with her opponents. Life did become hectic once Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and, much against her wishes and nature, she had to socialise. But the discomfort showed. For instance, when Rajiv was contesting from Amethi, there were visuals of Sonia standing far behind and alone and having to be nudged by her husband to come and vote. She did it with a sense of unease. As the wife of a candidate, Sonia Gandhi had to campaign for Rajiv, but it was clearly an awkward moment for her.

One would have thought that with joining active politics, Sonia Gandhi would be happy with the crowd surrounding her especially as she emerged as one of the most powerful women in the world. But she had few friends, selected advisors. While forced to interact with her party colleagues, she maintained her inaccessibility. Many see this as a facade for her loneliness. Being with Indira, Sonia had learnt that not all those who praised her as a neta were to be trusted. Sonia was surrounded by party stalwarts but she kept her ears and eyes open to the fact that many made fun of her behind her back. As a foreigner who had to fight the wily netas in the party, Sonia Gandhi was on her own. The fact that her children were young, she had few genuine friends, mostly who were not in politics, just added to this. Sonia's kawach, or her guard, was to stay away and seek private moments.

It was with a sense of relief that Sonia Gandhi saw Rahul’s entry into active politics, finally. First as MP of Amethi then to slowly rise to become the president of her party. It was an emotional moment when Rahul Gandhi kissed his mother on her forehead as he took charge of the party at a function in the Congress headquarters. Sources say that day Sonia Gandhi was jubilant and very relaxed. She headed for a holiday to Goa and pictures of her cycling with a glow on her face with a few locals underscored her happiness and relief.

An anecdote reveals how Sonia found pleasure in small things away from politics. After an important Congress meeting when all the leaders had left, one senior neta had to come back to the room. He was surprised to see Sonia lift the coffee mugs and also wipe the table. Sonia looked sheepish but she also seemed “childlike and happy”. "We soon realised that it was these private moments which made her strong and happy," the leader revealed. Sonia Gandhi was aware that she was constantly under scrutiny. Her defeats would be seen as her inability to deliver. She was no match for the astuteness of say a Sharad Pawar or Mulayam Singh Yadav. And while the credit for the UPA win goes to these stalwarts, it was Sonia who was determined to show once and for all that she could deliver which won the day. Emerging out of her cocoon, Sonia Gandhi decided to fight back. But those who know her say that she would still feel the loneliness of a neta who has had to sacrifice two members of her family to political assassination. This was a fear which stuck with her for her children and likewise they worried for her.

Today, as she decided not to celebrate her birthday, perhaps Sonia is a little less lonely. She knows that the time for her to finally retire is not too far. More importantly, both Rahul and Priyanka have decided to take over the reins. This retirement from loneliness comes at a time, strangely, when her party needs her astuteness even more, as the Congress moves from one electoral loss to another. But Sonia has made it clear to her close family, she wants to stop nurturing her party and go back to real gardening.