Congress President

Congress President elections– When Sonia Gandhi faced a contest

Congress President elections– When Sonia Gandhi faced a contest
Sonia Gandhi (File photo)

Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president for the first time on March 14, 1998 after she was forced to come out of her self-imposed political hibernation. A year later, she had to face one of the biggest challenges of her political career when her three senior colleagues – Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar, and PA Sangma -revolted against her. They were against her being projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in view of her foreign origin for she was born in Italy.

On May 14, 1999, she resigned from the post. “Although born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country and would remain an Indian till my last breath. India is my country and would remain an Indian till my last breath. India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life,” she wrote in her resignation letter to the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

The move prompted the resignation spree from a large number of senior leaders and then chief ministers Digvijaya Singh (Madhya Pradesh), Sheila Dikshit (Delhi), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan), and Giridhar Gamang (Orissa). Hundreds of workers launched hunger strikes and agitation to request her to withdraw her resignation.

Sonia Gandhi finally relented but only after the party expelled Pawar, Sangma, and Anwar for six years on May 20. Four days later, she returned as the Congress president. The next day, a special session of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) was called to welcome her back as the party chief.

However, she was not able to quell the rebellion fully. Over a year later in November 2000, she faced a challenger in Jitendra Prasada, who was political advisor to two prime ministers – first her husband Rajiv Gandhi and later PV Narasimha Rao apart from being Congress vice-president from June 1997 to April 1998, and Rajesh Pilot who along with Pawar had earlier contested unsuccessfully against Sitaram Kesri in 1997.

However, Pilot died in a road accident near Jaipur on June 11, 2000, a few months ahead of the Congress president’s elections that were held on November 12 that year.

Prasada somehow managed to file five sets of nominations – two from his native Uttar Pradesh and one each from Maharashtra, Bihar, and Chandigarh. This was in contrast to 800 nomination papers submitted in support of Sonia Gandhi from across the country, a clear indication about the outcome. However, Prasada went ahead and did not withdraw his nomination papers though he is said to have been waiting for some signal from the emissaries he had rushed to 10, Janpath, the official residence of Sonia Gandhi.

In the elections, Sonia Gandhi expectedly trounced Prasada, winning 7,542 votes. Prasada could bag just 94.

The victory helped Sonia Gandhi establish her authority in the grand old party as no one ever raised a banner of revolt against her till December 2017 when she handed over the reins of the Congress to her son Rahul Gandhi.

Since 2000, there has not been a contest for the Congress president’s post.

All eyes are now on the upcoming polls in the country's oldest political party.