Woman in the News: Sonia Gandhi
By James Lamont
Published: May 22 2009 19:46 | Last updated: May 22 2009 19:46
Within India’s Congress party, Sonia Gandhi is known simply as “Madam”. Having finished a month of sari-clad election appearances from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, “Madam” spent this week meeting prospective cabinet ministers at her residence at 10 Janpath in New Delhi, overseeing the formation of a new government.
A little over a decade ago, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the slain Indian former prime minister, was less predictable. Then she was described as an enigma, sphinx-like. She was a deeply private person, whose aversion to the limelight kept people guessing whether she would be drawn into politics and provide the missing link to preserve the power of the country’s Nehru-Gandhi ruling dynasty.
A decidedly reluctant politician, her first priority then was the well-being of her children. Ruling the world’s largest democracy was hardly an ambition, more an unsought duty.
Her party’s electoral triumph last weekend marks an extraordinary personal feat. As its leader since 1998, she has rebuilt India’s largest political party. In doing so, she has assured the continuity of the Nehru-Gandhi family after the assassinations of her husband and mother-in-law. She has also upheld the national secular vision of India won by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, in 1947 at the end of British rule. Her children, Rahul and Priyanka, are carefully positioned to follow her example.
These achievements have taken considerable courage. In public, she cuts a dignified, determined figure – with the solitary aura of royalty among her courtiers. She is not given to long discussion, speaking curtly in accented English or Hindi. But to become her party’s undisputed leader she has had to face down jibes and misgivings about her Italian origins, her personal faith and her intellectual prowess.
Mrs Gandhi, 62, has repeatedly defied expectations. In the first place, as a young widow she chose India above her home country. She revitalised a party lacking ideas and in decline, its support splintering into smaller parties based on caste and regional interests. In 2004, she unseated the Bharatiya Janata party and its leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee in an election no one expected her to win.
She sprang another surprise this month. Congress won an emphatic victory, taking 206 seats in the 545-seat parliament, far more than the 150 forecast. With its allies, the party has easily secured a majority to form the next government.
Sonia Maino was born in a village close to Vicenza in north-east Italy. Daughter of a building contractor and former soldier, she grew up in the industrial town of Orbassano, near Turin. It was Cambridge, in the UK, that was to change her life. It was there that she met her future husband, Rajiv, while he was studying at Trinity College. She was attending a local language school when she caught his eye and they fell in love. In 1968, they married – an improbable match for a scion of India’s political class, where social status counts for much. Yet, Mrs Gandhi remembers a welcome from her mother-in-law, Indira, while her own father was more cautious about her choice.
A life in politics then was not a given. Rajiv became a commercial pilot. Both eschewed public roles, and briefly lived abroad again after Indira was ousted from power in 1977. But a series of premature deaths changed everything. First Rajiv’s brother and the political heir, Sanjay, died in a flying accident in 1980. Then Indira was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. Rajiv, a man of ideas, was pitched into the premiership aged 40 in an overwhelming sympathy vote for Congress after his mother’s death. Then he, too, was killed on the election trail in Tamil Nadu by a suicide bomber.
On Rajiv’s death a stoic journey began for Mrs Gandhi, supported by her husband’s friends. She set about ridding herself of her foreign identity and venerating her late husband’s memory. She emphasised her Indian identity above her Italian, wearing only saris in public and adopting local mannerisms. Her native tongue was dropped. She visited temples and even took a dip in the holy Ganges river in 2001.
She needed strong survival instincts. As her political role became clear, she was jeered by her opponents as an uneducated housewife, unsuitable for leadership in New Delhi because of her foreign origins.
“She’s not a political animal,” says Yogendra Yadav, senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “Her question is not ‘How will this benefit me?’ It is rather, ‘Is it good?’ You don’t have many politicians asking that question.”
He describes her as benevolent and loyal to her allies, sometimes beyond their expiry date.
“Her grasp of local politics is still very general and she’s not in the nitty-gritty of political management at the state level, instead handing it over to political managers who turn out – or not – to be smart or straight.”
Mrs Gandhi has proved to have enormous popular appeal. First, she is a Gandhi, which continues to have powerful resonance with the voters across the country. The Congress party shamelessly campaigns on the family brand, with her and son Rahul alongside Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, on almost all its posters.
Second, she has inherited her mother-in-law’s left-of-centre economic views and prioritises the needs of the rural poor, most of India’s 1.2bn people. She delivers a simple message of caring for common people in a country with a large social deficit, is unimpressed by notions of India’s superpowerdom, and is suspicious of the free market.
Some commentators argue her appeal stems from national sympathy for her widowhood. Others claim her renunciation of the premiership in 2004, in favour of Mr Singh, earned her huge credit. In a country where politicians rarely make self-sacrifices, her step back from power was regarded as astonishing.
Others are more critical. They say that Mrs Gandhi, like other Indian leaders, has corrupted some agencies of the state – most blatantly in quashing the pursuit of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, during Rajiv’s government. She is also viewed as an adept political operator, who has placed loyalists in the presidency and election commission to consolidate Congress’s influence. Within the party, she stifles leadership that might impede her family’s ascendancy.
As her meetings in the library of 10 Janpath conclude and ministers take up their new jobs, the Gandhi inheritance looks safer now than in almost two decades.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009