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The political development of Sonia

With a hundred nominations in her favour and none against, Sonia Gandhi's re-election as Congress president went like clockwork. In contrast to the 2000 organisational election, when she faced a measure of opposition, this time her well-wishers virtually stampeded to be by her side, among them Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet colleagues, all of the party's central leadership, and a gaggle of young Congresspersons led by Rahul Gandhi. Some of this flattering attention undoubtedly owed to the `dynasty' factor; Congressmen are wont to get worshipful in the First Family's presence. Yet it would be grossly unfair to attribute Ms. Gandhi's iconic image in the party today to anything other than her own sterling qualities and inner reserves. Her political career is the stuff of fairy tale. Who could have guessed that the awkward, tentative Gandhi daughter-in-law who came to the rescue of the Congress at a critical moment would grow into a figure of such standing and importance? Or that one day she would enter history books as that rare politician who, offered the crown, turned it down? The hysterics and tears witnessed in Congress offices on Ms. Gandhi's refusal to become Prime Minister were surely excessive but there can be no disputing the universal admiration she gained from that singular act of self-denial.

Looking at Ms. Gandhi's grace and maturity today, it is difficult to believe that she is the same person who six years ago naively declared her ambitions in advance. Her announcement from the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan that she commanded a majority of 272 (in the Lok Sabha) all but sealed her fate. Her legion of opponents and critics needed no further proof that the "Italian bahu" was greedy and grabbing. That she put that painful episode behind her is a tribute to her equanimity and resilience, more so given the challenges before her party. In the 1999 general election, her first as leader of the Congress, her party finished with 114 seats, its lowest tally ever. This was a testing moment in other ways too — some of her party leaders deserted her citing her foreign origins, while her opponents labelled her a failed leader. So much so the Congress was seen to have performed creditably in a good many State elections despite Ms. Gandhi rather than because of her. Yet by dint of commitment, focus, and hard work, the Congress chief turned the tide: she instilled hope in the moribund party, won over opponents such as Sharad Pawar, and put together a winning coalition of secular and like-minded parties. With the United Progressive Alliance's surprise ascent to power, Ms. Gandhi may have achieved the impossible, but the Congress still has a long way to go. It must learn to respect its allies even as it strives to develop its independent strength and capabilities. That Congress bosses want Ms. Gandhi to name members of the new Congress Working Committee is an embarrassing reminder that in the GOP loyalty has primacy over inner-party democracy.

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