Sonia Gandhi: Ordinary Italian to powerful Indian

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on March 12, 2018

Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi (then Prime Minister) wave at locals during a tour of Mizoram in July 1986.

Sonia Gandhi An extraordinary life, an Indian destiny. By Rani Singh Publisher: Pan Macmillan Price: Rs 499

Nancy Reagan with Sonia Gandhi at a dinner at the White House in June 1985.

Sonia's impeccable dress sense was shaped by Indira's knowledge of India's incredible fabrics and textures.

For those who watch like hawks the Indian political landscape, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, it will be easy to dismiss London-based former BBC journalist Rani Singh's biography of the Congress President — Sonia Gandhi - An extraordinary life, an Indian destiny (Pan Macmillan) — as pedestrian fare offering nothing that is startling or new.

But read the book as a well-written, neat and fairly detailed compilation of events, circumstances and destiny that catapulted a girl born in an ordinary middle-class Italian family into the position of the most important and powerful political leader of a country of 1.2 billion people, and you'll glean its merits.

When Rajiv Gandhi fell in love with Sonia, Indira Gandhi was much more receptive to her son marrying a foreigner than Sonia's parents, especially her father, were. Indira once told fellow Kashmir Pandit M.L. Fotedar that she had always wanted a Kashmiri daughter-in-law. “But Sonia is just like a Kashmiri girl; faithful to her husband, faithful to the family. I am satisfied.”

In many passages like this, you get the feeling the author is going out of her way to dwell on the strong bonds between Indira and Sonia. What is missing is a hard and critical look at Sonia's shortcomings.

Sonia's transition from a young woman in Delhi who “sometimes dressed in European fashion: tall boots, short skirts, form-fitting trousers and jumpers, big earrings and makeup, her long luxurious hair often worn down with a side part… (that) always turned heads”, to an astute politician who stepped forward in March 1998 to take charge of a Congress party that was falling apart under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, is well captured in the book.

Quoting from Mushirul Hasan's book Nehrus: Personal Histories, the author writes that Sonia came to India at an impressionable age, so the greatest single factor that would have influenced her was the presence of “a towering figure like Indira Gandhi, who, with all her faults and failings, was… one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century.” It was the best political kindergarten Sonia could have had, notes Singh.

The book dwells at length on something that is well known in India — how fiercely Sonia fought against Rajiv entering politics. After Sanjay's death in 1980, her husband's entry into politics caused stress in their marriage. For the first time in 15 years, Sonia noted in her book Rajiv, “there was tension between Rajiv and me. I fought like a tigress — for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together, his flying which he loved, our uncomplicated, easy friendships, and above all, for our freedom: that simple human right that we had so carefully and consistently preserved.”

She described her husband's relationship with the party as one that “demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him — of that I was absolutely certain — I remember that long year as being one of complete helplessness, with every minute drawing us close to the abyss. I kept hoping for a miracle, a solution which would be acceptable and fair to all of us. I could no longer bear to watch Rajiv being torn apart. I would bow to those forces which were now beyond me to fight, and would go with him wherever they took him”.

In May 1981, 11 months after Sanjay's death, Rajiv resigned from Indian Airlines. Indira gave instructions that Sonia should accompany Rajiv when he went to rural areas, and thus the seed was sown for her rural experience.

Details of Indira's assassination, how Sonia rushed her to hospital, even though known, are related in a dramatic, readable style. She fought, once again, against Rajiv stepping into his mother's shoes. In the hospital, leaders were pushing Rajiv to step into the premier position. Indira's Principal Secretary, P.C. Alexander, went into the waiting room and saw Sonia in a terrible state, begging Rajiv not to take over. “They were hugging each other, he was kissing her forehead”. Sonia was in tears and saying, “You should step back and allow someone else to hold this job.”

Sonia slowly shedding her reluctance to give interviews, particularly for television, is brought out in Singh's conversations with senior journalists like Shekhar Gupta and Vir Sanghvi. Gupta, who got her on his show Walk the Talk, was impressed by the outcome of this interview, which took him several months to set up. There had been no preparatory meetings, no support team or entourage for this 2004 interview. “Years later he commented: ‘I was very pleasantly surprised by how candid and how articulate she was… nobody had tutored her because I had given her no questions (in advance)'.”

She took questions on the Emergency, perhaps for the first time, and admitted that “mistakes were made, excesses committed... and that Mrs Gandhi was regretful”.

On the famous fiasco in April 1999 when Mulayam Singh prevented her from becoming the Prime Minister of India, Sonia categorically denied that this was her intention, telling Sanghvi in an interview: “Most certainly not… I didn't even have the mandate of a constituency, how could I do so?”

Then, of course, there is an entire chapter, ‘My Inner Voice', describing the drama of May 2004, when the Party begged her to become Prime Minister but Sonia refused to do so. But if you expect any insight on how, or if, the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had advised her against heading the government, there isn't a word. In many places you feel the author is politically correct and has steered clear of controversies that could have stalled the publication of the book!

The most disappointing part of the book, however, is the foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev, which says little more than that Rajiv and Sonia were a nice and warm and hospitable couple (Yawn).

But there is enough in the book to give you a comprehensive account of the enigmatic woman that Sonia Gandhi is. An added bonus is exhaustive quotes from Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, but from secondary and already published/telecast sources. That book is yet to be written where Sonia or her children talk to the writer about their world, their lives and their dreams.

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Published on October 27, 2011
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