Congress leader Sonia Gandhi confessed that she "knew her limitations" as a leader and was not a natural at public speaking, in a candid speech at the India Today conclave today.
Speaking her mind on wide-ranging subjects, she commented that the difference between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was that "Vajpayee had great respect for parliamentary procedure."
Democracy allows dissent and debate and not monologues, she added in an apparent dig at PM Modi.
She also hit out at the Modi government for attacking Congress policies. "Was India really a giant black hole before 26 May 2014? Did India march to progress, prosperity and greatness just four years ago? Is this claim not an insult to the intelligence of our people?"
She was also self-critical as she assessed her own leadership after the Congress came to power in 2004.
"I knew Manmohan Singh would be a better PM than me, I knew my limitations," said the 71-year-old, who refused to take the top post when Congress leaders tearfully and passionately begged her to do so in 2004.
"Public speaking does not come naturally to me, that is why I was called a reader than a leader," she remarked.
She was also candid in saying that she now found more time for herself after demitting the post of Congress president which she held for 19 years. "I have more time for myself... To read and watch movies.
I am also tiding up old papers of my mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi) and husband (Rajiv Gandhi). I will digitalise them. The papers are letters written by my mother-in-law to her son (Rajiv) and his replies. They are of sentimental value for me," she said.
Reacting on criticism of Rahul Gandhi not being in the country during counting of votes in northeastern states, she said the Congress president went to see his grandmother in Italy for three days after he had done his rounds of electioneering.
On the political role for her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, she said till now Priyanka has restricted herself to managing Rae Bareli and Amethi constituencies during elections.
"At the moment, she is pre-occupied with her children. It is up to her and one never knows the future," Gandhi said. Speaking on the Congress' loss to the BJP-led NDA in 2014, she said besides "other issues", the UPA government faced anti-incumbency for being in power for two terms.
"We were out-marketed. We could not compete with how Narendra Modi (prime minister) ran his campaign," the UPA chairperson admitted. On Modi, she said," I don't know him as a person. During (former prime minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee's time, we were bitter opponents. But still we functioned well."
Asked what advice she would give to the prime minister, Gandhi quipped," I wouldn't dare to advise him. There are many people around him to do so." She also said that she was optimistic that her party would bounce back in 2019. "We are not going to let BJP/NDA win," Gandhi said.
On the Congress' preparedness for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, she said she was not fond of slogans and empty promises. "Don't lie to the people and promise what you can't implement," she said in an apparent barb at Prime Minister Modi.
She also rejected that the Congress was taking up "soft Hindutva" approach. "Our opponents have branded us as a Muslim party. We have been visiting temples earlier too, but never made a show of it, "she said responding to a question on Rahul's temple visits during the Gujarat polls.
On the arrest of Karti Chidambaram, son of former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Sonia Gandhi said she wasn't aware of the details of the case. "One of the means of getting at political opponents by this government is starting cases against them," she charged.
Sonia Gandhi did not want husband Rajiv to join politics. That is a fact well known.
Today, Sonia, who was speaking on day 1 of the India Today Conclave 2018 in Mumbai, opened up about her fears with respect to Rajiv joining politics.
She was always against Rajiv joining politics, Sonia suggested today. "There were reasons for me not wanting my husband to join politics."
"Because you see when you are in politics and you are a genuine person who genuinely cares, then everything comes second," Sonia said, adding that she feared that if Rajiv entered politics, the family life that Sonia and Rajiv shared would be impacted.
However, it was her mother-in-law and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 that really made her fear the prospect of Rajiv donning the politician's hat.
"Suppose it [my opposition to Rajiv joining politics] was perhaps selfish, but I also felt that they would have got him... they would have killed him," an unusually blunt Sonia said.
"And I was right, that did happen," Sonia added.
"Was it a premonition?" Aroon Purie, chairman and editor-in-chief of India Today Group, asked Sonia. "Not really, but I knew what was going on around us [at that time]... but at that point it [Rajiv joining politics] was inevitable, because he could not have stepped back... he was already in politics," Sonia Gandhi responded.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991, around seven years after his mother Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards at the prime minister's residence in New Delhi.
Following Indira's death, Rajiv served as the interim prime minister of India before winning a landslide in a general election. Rajiv went on to serve a full five-year term as prime minister.
On the evening of May 21, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi reached Madras (now Chennai) on his way to Sriperumbudur, where he was scheduled to address an election rally.
Rajiv reached Sriperumbudur shortly after 10pm and headed to the greet the large crowd that was waiting for him.
There were separate gatherings of men and women. Rajiv Gandhi first went towards the men and then headed towards the gallery where women were cheering for him.
Among the crowd was a young woman of around 30, who moved towards Rajiv Gandhi purposefully.
A woman police constable, later identified as Anusuya, tried to stop the lady but Rajiv Gandhi intervened and asked her to let the woman inside the fence. "Don't worry. Relax," Rajiv Gandhi said.
Those were Rajiv Gandhi's last words.
The lady who had moved towards Rajiv was an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber, later identified as Dhanu. She triggered a bomb vest she was wearing as she bent to touch Rajiv Gandhi's feet.
An explosion ripped through the area, killing Rajiv Gandhi and plunging India into grief and deep shock.
Sonia Gandhi was Congress president for 19 years before she handed charge to son and deputy Rahul Gandhi in December.
She noted that the Congress needs to develop a new style of connecting with people at the organisational level.
Speaking on her party's defeat in a series of elections beginning with the 2014 national polls that saw the BJP taking power, Sonia Gandhi said: "We were out-marketed. We have to really develop a new style of connecting with people. We have to look how we project our programs and policies."
Speaking at the India Today Conclave 2018 in Mumbai, Sonia Gandhi today said, "Corruption was an issue. I am sure I am going to be misunderstood but it was highly exaggerated."
"In the case of 2G, what happened recently...The previous CAG in our government...they came up with a humongous sum of money (Rs 1.76 lakh crore)...But there was a problem there. Everyone realises it was not just highly exaggerated. How come the person in-charge of that office was given a very cushy job right after (new government was sworn in)?" the former Congress president said.
Sonia Gandhi also said that in the Gujarat government, the very institution of CAG has found Rs 20,000 crore misuse of funds in the Oil and (Natural) Gas Corporation but nobody is talking about it.
"We tried taking it up in the Parliament but we are not allowed to speak. Unfortunately, we have to start making a nuisance of ourselves (and) start shouting because every time there is an issue, we cannot take it up. We are sidelined," Sonia said.
Pointing at the Nirav Modi-Punjab National Bank scam of Rs 11,400 crore, Sonia said that the Opposition wants to take up the 'big fraud' that is agitating the people of this country.
"It must be agitated in Parliament, but we have not been allowed to speak," said
During a short keynote address, Sonia Gandhi touched upon various social and economic subjects. She said: "The freedom to think for oneself, to differ and disagree, to eat according to one's choice, to meet and marry according to one's wishes all this and more is under attack. Our country, our society, our freedoms all are now under a systematic and sustained assault. Our freedoms are under attack."
She further said that the parliamentary majority was being interpreted as a licence to stifle debate and bulldozed legislations. "Fear and intimidation are the order of the day. Alternative voices are being silenced," Gandhi added.
Speaking on what went wrong for Congress in the last few years, Gandhi said that there was certain amount of anti incumbency. She said: "There were certain issues. We were in a way out marketed. We couldn't compete with how Modi went into elections." She further said that the Congress party has to develop a new style of connecting with people. The former Congress chairperson also downplayed all the talks of corruption during UPA-II regime.
She said: "Corruption as an issue was highly exaggerated. The previous CAG in our government came out with a humongous sum of money. There was a problem in that. The person in-charge was given a very cushy job."
The was referring to former CAG Vinod Rai who came up with 2G scam figure. "In Gujarat, the same CAG has found Rs 20,000 crore of misuse of funds and nobody is talking about it," she added.
Sonia Gandhi also said that the current ruling party lacked respect to parliamentary procedures. She was responding to a question on the conduct of oppositions during the Prime Minister's speech in the Parliament after Budget 2018. "Every time there is an important issue to discuss, we are scuttled in the Parliament. We wanted to discuss the big fraud. It's the issue that's agitating people's mind. But we are not just allowed to speak," she said.
Gandhi also accused the government of fuelling religious tensions. She said: "Vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose under state patronage. There is shocking insensitivity on atrocities on dalits and women. Our society is being polarised with an eye on winning elections.