Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honour and privilege to welcome Mrs Sonia Gandhi back to the India Today Conclave.
When you came to us last, Madam, in 2004, you spoke quite prophetically of the choice India had--an aggressive, exclusive nationalism or a pluralistic, inclusive one.
You warned us of the possible danger of the closing of the Indian mind despite economic liberalisation and of the importance of blending new alliances with old identities.
Many things have happened since.
The Congress party went on to win the General Election just a few months later, she became the chairperson of the UPA, listened to her inner voice, made Dr.Manmohan Singh prime minister, and well, we all know the rest.
Earlier this year, she stepped down as president of the Congress party after serving for twenty long years. No mean feat in a world with shortened attention spans and even more abbreviated loyalty quotients.
Madam, you once said power in itself has never attracted you, nor has position been your goal. In fact, you once told your son that power is poison. But destiny is an implacable force. It placed you in the unique position of defending the party which your family has given its life to.
Destiny has tested her many times, most publicly and harrowingly when her beloved mother-in-law and equally beloved husband were tragically taken away from her. But she has shown uncommon will and inordinate strength to fight against all odds for what she believes in.
You, the Accidental Inheritor, have become the Grand Old Party's Prime Protector.
As chairperson of the UPA Mrs Gandhi managed a 19-party coalition between 2004 and 2009 and then again between 2009 and 2014 as the manager in chief of a ten party coalition.
Keeping egos in check, handling contradictions, ensuring smooth working, the Once Reluctant Politician became the Great Unifier.
The second UPA government may have descended into corruption and paralysis, and it was duly punished by the people, but the verdict was accepted in the great democratic tradition of this country with grace and gravitas.
She has withstood the worst abuse with serenity and accepted the highest praise with just a smile; she has seen at close quarters the height of power as also the depths of powerlessness; she has seen the greatest loss and sweetest victory.
Through it all she has been Supreme Leader. Mother Courage. The Ultimate Negotiator.
I am certain if your much-loved husband Rajiv Gandhi could see you today, he would be proud of you. Of your commitment to the family and your allegiance to the party, and for embracing politics, the very thing that was once your greatest fear.
The Congress's Premier Torchbearer for 20 years, Mrs Gandhi is now the Chief Mentor. It is a role, I am sure, she will perform as she has all others: with a sense of service, selflessness and sacrifice.
She will need all three qualities in full measure to combat the situation her party is in now. The Grand Old Party is a shadow of its former great self. Her opponents talk of a Congress-mukt Bharat. And if the recent results in the northeast, once considered a Congress bastion, are anything to go by, that vision is rapidly becoming a reality.
You and your party, Madam, face serious challenges on every front. It is a task in which the new Congress President needs your help and though you have announced your retirement from the party, I am glad to know that you will continue in politics.
And I am sure if there is one thing we've learnt in politics -- at least, I have as an observer - it is this: it's a mistake to count anyone out, least of all, you.
Thank you once again for coming to the India Today Conclave.