Sonia Gandhi’s hint at retirement from politics caught most off guard on Saturday, at the second day of the 85th Congress Plenary Session at Raipur. The 1946-born Italian by birth and Indian by marriage Sonia Gandhi is still the UPA’s chairperson and remains Congress’ longest-serving President with a 25-year service to the party.
Despite initial reluctance to enter politics after husband Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, she finally relented and joined Congress in 1997. In 1998, she became party leader in 2004, she surprised the country by refusing to become the Prime Minister in the Congress-led coalition government. During both UPA tenures, she served as chairperson of the UPA. However, the last few years have seen advancing age and health issues force her to limit participation and public appearances.
At 76, while Sonia Gandhi HAS hinted at retirement from politics, there are other senior leaders in the country playing not only an active but a seasoned role in contemporary Indian politics. Here’s a quick look at six such names:
1. Farooq Abdullah, National Conference, 85 Years
Farooq Abdullah (born October 21, 1937) remains the oldest and strongest voice of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. He has served as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir on several occasions since 1982, and as Union minister for New and Renewable Energy between 2009 and 2014. He is the son of the 1st elected CM of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah.
The mature leader, now 85, was also among the first to be put under house arrest after the scrapping of Article 370. He is the only leader in the country whose father and son have both been chief ministers. As president of the National Conference (1981 to 2002), he made sure his party was relevant to Central politics.
In 2022, before the election of the President of India, Mamata Banerjee along with several other opposition leaders had proposed Abdullah’s name as the Opposition’s candidate. But Abdullah declined the offer stating that he wanted to remain in active politics for more years and was concentrated in the Kashmir Union Territory issue.
2. Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party, 82 Years
He is a kingmaker for all seasons. As master of alliances and power sharing equations, no party can overlook moves made by the 82-year-old Sharad Govindrao Pawar (born 12 December 1940). He helms Nationalist Congress Party and is the focal point of Maharashtra politics. Pawar is the only senior Opposition leader in the country who has been praised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The role of this Marathi chhatrap will be important in the 2024 General Elections and also in the Maharashtra elections. He has played a key role as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and as defence minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s cabinet. He has also served as Union Minister for Agriculture in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.
Pawar set up the NCP in 1999 after breaking away from the Indian National Congress. He is also the president of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, a regional political alliance of parties in Maharashtra. In 2017, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour.
3. Captain Amarinder Singh, BJP, 81 Years
His father was the last Maharaja of the princely state of Patiala. Little wonder then that Capt Amrinder Singh (March 11, 1942) seems to have a born disposition to rule.
Despite serving in the Indian Army from 1963 to 1966, Captain, as he is called, chose to throw his hat in the political ring. In 1980, he won a seat in the Lok Sabha for the first time on a Shiromani Akali Dal ticket. There was no looking back after.
Over the years, he rose in ranks and closeness to the Gandhi family. He was also the president of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee and became Punjab’s CM twice: from 2002 to 2007 and 2017 to 2021. However, power tussles with the Navjot Sidhu-led faction culminated in Captain retiring hurt. Captain resigned as the CM of Punjab in September 2021. The following day, he merged his party PLC with the BJP. As of November 2022, Singh also serves as the chairman of the Punjab Urdu Academy.
4 Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress, 80 Years
Mallikarjun Kharge (July 21, 1942) is the 74th and current president of the Indian National Congress. He has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka since February 2021. He has formerly served as Railway Minister and Minister of Labour and Employment. Kharge has also been a member of the Lok Sabha for Gulbarga, Karnataka from 2009 to 2019.
He was appointed as the President of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee during the 2008 Karnataka State Assembly elections. To his credit, Kharge has won a record 10 times in a row (1972, 1978, 1983, 1985, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2008, 2009).
His oratory skills also got him to become leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha from 2014-2019. He defeated Shashi Tharoor to win the 2022 Indian National Congress presidential election.
5. Pinarayi Vijayan, CPI-M, 78 Years
At 78, Pinarayi Vijayan continues to be CM of Kerala even at a time when Leftists are losing ground elsewhere in the country. Vijayan is currently the only Left-leaning CM in the country, heading the Left Democratic Front. Born on March 21, 1944, in Kannur, Kerala, Vijayan remains the longest-serving secretary of the Kerala State Committee of the CPI(M) (1998–2015).
Vijayan entered politics through student union activities at Government Brennen College, Thalassery. He eventually joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964. Vijayan became Kannur district secretary of the Kerala Students Federation (KSF), which later became the Students Federation of India (SFI). He went on to become the state secretary and subsequently the state president of KSF. He then moved on to Kerala State Youth Federation (KSYF), which later became the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI). He became the president of the state committee. During that period, when communists in Kerala were organising the political activities from different hide-outs, Pinarayi Vijayan was imprisoned for one and a half years.
Later, he was elected as the president of the Kerala state co-operative bank.
6. Naveen Patnaik, BJD, 77 Years
Naveen Patnaik (born 16 October 1946) is the current and 14th Chief Minister of Odisha. He is also the president of the Biju Janata Dal, a writer and has authored three books. He is the longest-serving chief minister of Odisha and as of 2023, one of the longest-serving chief ministers of any Indian state, holding the post for over two decades, and only the third Indian chief Minister after Pawan Chamling and Jyoti Basu to win five consecutive terms as Chief Minister of an Indian state.
Like his father, he has managed to control the bureaucracy and transformed it into a machine for the development of the state. Patnaik spent most of his early days away from Odisha, so he has problems with writing and speaking fluently in Odia language. He is the only chief minister of India who does not speak fluently the regional language of his state and because of this, he has been facing severe criticism from his opponents. Presently, Patnaik has an adequate working knowledge of Odia and he possesses great mastery over Hindi, French, Punjabi, and English. At rallies, he delivers Odia speeches written in Roman alphabet.