February 16, 2003: Sonia Gandhi's dinner for opposition unity. Invitees: Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and Laloo Prasad Yadav.
September 23, 2003: The first leader to call on a stroke-hit, forgotten Kanshi Ram in hospital
November 15, 2003: Ram Vilas Paswan, Ajit Singh, and SP and RJD members attend her iftaar.
January 15, 2004: Meets Sharad Pawar at his Delhi residence.
January 15, 2004: 'Opts' out of the PM race, says decision will be consensual
February 6, 2004: Lunch for prospective friends—BSP, SP, NCP, DMK, CPI(M), JD(S) and Chandra Shekhar
February 14, 2004: Meets Karunanidhi and clears DMK in Rajiv assassination
May 12, 2004: Speaks to Deve Gowda on phone, meets Anil Ambani
Since December 27, Sonia logged approximately 60,000 km—with over 60 rallies and roadshows ('Sonia jan sampark abhiyan'). Her routes ran through pockets where anti-incumbency against Congress was at its worst.
Highlight of roadshows: Repeatedly stopped the motorcade to make personal gestures. For example, in Bhadohi, UP, she lifted and kissed a child, and went inside houses in Palampur, Himachal, to inquire about problems.
Unlike the NDA's phalanx , she virtually campaigned for Congress single-handedly.
An extensive traveller: She did an average of 450 to 500 km daily.
The family strikes back: Sonia repeatedly invoked the family name: mother-in-law, husband et al
Personal effects: Travelled minus cellphone, but with her glasses and used companions' mobiles when necessary. Often skipped lunch for fresh cucumber sandwiches with a dash of butter, or rice, dal and pickle. Carried a hamper of chocolates and cookies, just in case.
Road read: Policy papers, organisational documents and speeches to be delivered
Most frequent companion: Congress general secretary Ambika Soni
"They (my detractors) don't know the stuff I am made of."
-Sonia Gandhi, Talkatora Stadium, 1999
Congress president Sonia Gandhi's expression said it all: triumph, delight, laughter and a hint of tears. She'd started out hoping just to stay in the race; she ended up as the undisputed champion. Doubts about her leadership ability and her foreign origin lay buried in the battlefield of Lok Sabha 2004. Five years after she failed in her bid to form a government by toppling the NDA, she was heading back to the threshold of Rashtrapati Bhawan. And this time, with the unflinching support of enough MPs to cross the magical 272 mark.
At the aicc headquarters on 24, Akbar Road, disbelief gave way to euphoria as the results poured in on Thursday morning. "Sab uparwale ki kripa hai (This is a gift from the almighty)," declared CWC member Ahmed Patel. The party had been playing the Lok Sabha election as a semi-final. To its surprise, voters handed them the tournament: game, set, match. "God helps those who do not help themselves," commented a CWC member. The party, he added, has won despite itself, because the electorate had made up their minds to throw out the NDA. And that pretty much summed up the prevailing sentiment at the Congress HQ.
Putting pollsters and political analysts to shame yet again, voters gave the Congress an unexpected 145 seats. The allies got another 72 seats. With the backing of the Left Front's 61, the Congress was comfortably placed to form the government, on its own terms rather than those of fractious potential partners like the SP or the BSP. With none of the allies expressing any discomfort with the idea of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister, it also became clear that she would be the next incumbent at 7, Race Course Road. Asked if the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) leader would be the next PM, pat came the answer, "Normally, aisa hi hota hai (that's how it works)".
It's a post she eminently deserves, her party colleagues felt. "She's shown tremendous courage. At our lowest ebb, under the onslaught of India Shining and the vicious, personalised campaign against her and her children, she never gave up and she made sure we didn't either," said Congress spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma. In a party bereft of charismatic leaders, Sonia carried the burden of the entire Congress campaign, doggedly covering state after state, seemingly undeterred by the initial success of the BJP blitzkrieg. The idea of undertaking the gruelling 'jan sampark abhiyan' rather than addressing rallies, originated from 10, Janpath.
The party's success was founded on its shrewd alliances with regional forces: the dmk in Tamil Nadu, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) in AP, the NCP in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti (LJP) in Bihar and JMM in Jharkhand. On December 27 last year, Sonia took the first step on the road that would eventually lead to South Block, when she strolled across to her neighbour Ram Vilas Paswan's house for a chat and a cup of tea. The gesture signalled the party's willingness to accommodate small and big regional players and set the stage for a countrywide, Congress-centred alliance. Although her tie-up with the BSP didn't materialise, her assiduous wooing of Mayawati sent a positive message to potential allies.
Another factor which helped the Congress victory was its decision to return to its socialist moorings. By harping on unemployment, poverty, and the plight of farmers, the Congress was able to puncture the myth of India Shining. The policy shift also increased comfort levels with the Left Front. In AP particularly, the common man and farmer-focused campaign paid off well. "Economic reforms for whom? Of what benefit are reforms if they do not help the common man?" asks CWC member Pranab Mukherjee.
The third reason for the success of the Congress had nothing to do with strategy; it benefited willy-nilly from anti-incumbency against state governments. "There has been local anti-incumbency across the country," observed party spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy. The Congress alliance benefited in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as a result, more than compensating for setbacks in Karnataka and Punjab.
The projection of Sonia as a vulnerable, sincere, gutsy woman battling the slick and sleazy BJP brigade also helped, say partymen. "We started out as the underdog, so maybe we earned some sympathy. The Indian electorate is a bit emotional and didn't appreciate the way the BJP leaders targeted her," says CWC member Ambika Soni.
The icing on the cake for the Congress is the fact that the SP has been reduced to irrelevance in the game at the Centre and the Congress is well on its way to revival in Uttar Pradesh. Despite having got nearly 40 seats, the SP-rld alliance has virtually no role to play in government formation-unless the Congress is magnanimous enough to accommodate them in government. "We're ready to work with like-minded parties," said Sonia Gandhi. But party leaders said the SP's support would have to be unconditional. They pointed out that Rahul Gandhi had charged the SP with being in cahoots with the BJP. The SP, for its part, had targeted Congress leaders by name in several bitter exchanges. Sonia, too, had hinted at a tacit SP-BJP alliance.
Remember, it was Mulayam Singh Yadav who denied her prime ministership in 1999. Indeed, for the first time, UP hasn't played a role in the selection of a PM-save the fact that Sonia is MP from Rae Bareli. Interestingly, even NCP leader Sharad Pawar has been left with hardly any leverage, with only nine seats out of 24 for the alliance in Maharashtra.
Sources said the Congress is working on a long-term revival plan for UP, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, who will be assisted by newly-inducted Congressman Sanjay Singh and CWC member Salman Khursheed. Rahul is also likely to become a general secretary of the aicc, with charge of Bihar and UP. He is just one of the many fresh faces in Parliament. Indeed, the Congress policy of fielding youngsters seems to have paid off. The bachcha brigade did the party proud: Sandeep Dikshit in East Delhi, Naveen Jindal in Kurukshetra, Sachin Pilot in Dausa, Milind Deora in Mumbai (South) and R.P.N. Singh in Padrauna have made it to the Lok Sabha.
The other major cause for satisfaction was Gujarat, where the party did far better than expected. "The people of Gujarat have silently sent a signal that the Narendra Modi brand of politics is unacceptable," said Ahmed Patel. Delhi, too, contributed to the Congress' "feelgreat". As always, it proved a barometer of the electorate's mood, giving the Congress a near-sweep: six of seven seats.
As of now, the Congress is confident that its allies will not abandon ship. After all, the dmk and the NCP both have to face assembly elections within a year and would prefer to do so in alliance with the Congress. The TRS, however, could give the Congress trouble with its single-minded insistence on statehood. As for Laloo Yadav, his success has cemented the Congress-RJD alliance. But party leaders say that if the Congress alliance had lost, ties with the RJD would have been reviewed.
A senior party leader said the biggest problem for the Congress will be managing the allies and the Left Front. Tough decisions like raising petrol prices, cutting down subsidies, disinvestment, etc may prove difficult to take. The Congress maintains that no one can derail reforms and it remains committed to the economic processes it started nearly a decade and a half ago, but it is girding itself for a war of attrition.
The other concern party leaders have is the performance of Sonia Gandhi in and outside Parliament. So far, she has been silent in the House for the most part. With the BJP in opposition, targeting her every day, she is going to have to hone her debating skills. A tough call, but then, the lady is full of surprises.