The enigma of Sonia Gandhi

Sunday, September 20, 2009
Aakar Patel

No leader in the world is like Sonia Gandhi. She is a European leading a major Asian power. A Roman Catholic, and perhaps a practising one though she makes no display of her faith, in a nation that is dominant Hindu and Muslim.

She has the sort of power in her country that few leaders in the west have. And though they do not seem keen to own her, not since Mussolini and perhaps not even since the Caesars has an Italian individual been this powerful.

Sonia isn’t properly educated, but is seen by India’s middle-class as quite sophisticated. There isn’t any evidence to show that she’s well- read either, but her manner is refined, even reginal. She met her husband Rajiv Gandhi at Cambridge, though she wasn’t at the university. She was taking English language lessons at a school, having come there from her home in Italy. Rajiv was attending Trinity, and said in a famous interview that he had ‘flunked out’ without a degree. Their son Rahul attended Trinity, and passed.

Sonia was 19 when she met Rajiv and 22 when they married. He was only a couple of years older, and so it must have been a partnership of equals, particularly because Rajiv was relaxed and not chauvinistic.

Within months of their meeting, Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India.

Sonia’s English isn’t particularly good. This was noticeable last week when she inaugurated an institute raised by the software firm Infosys, in the southern city of Mysore. She meant to tell the audience that she was happy to get away from Delhi, and all the trouble that her job in politics brought her, but what came out was gibberish. She isn’t good at Hindi either, though she has improved her control over it since she began speaking it publicly a decade ago. Certainly she speaks it better than Europeans who have been in India for much longer, like Mark Tully, or people who have dug into our culture more, like the author William Dalrymple.

Most of the time she speaks precisely and unambiguously, like a European and unlike Indian politicians. When she talks as a leader, she uses the modest ‘hum’ referring to the collective, rather than herself. She is always deferential to the prime minister in public, and you can see that she’s also quite fond of the old man (he’s 77), which is unusual given that they share power.

Sonia has been around power for a long time, over 40 years, so it must be second nature to her.

Her mother-in-law was murdered in 1984, when Sonia was 38. She was the wife to India’s prime minister, and it came to light that for many years after her marriage she had not taken Indian citizenship but retained her Italian passport (which she later gave up).

She was widowed at 45 when Rajiv was murdered in 1991.

She has raised her children well. They are independent and do not lean on their family identity beyond a point. And they are quite charming.

Both are handsome and that’s not surprising given how attractive their father was. Rahul is unexcitable and persistent rather than charismatic, and that is a very good thing for India. Priyanka is charismatic, and will come under pressure to join politics because crowds love her.

For eight years or so after her husband died, Sonia only played the widow. She took no part in electoral politics, when the Congress under Narasimha Rao ruled between 1991 (when Rajiv died) and 1996. She also sat out the next couple of years while the party was restive under its new head, an old-style back-room leader called Sitaram Kesri. As the party began to wilt under the BJP’s disciplined expansion and the rise of the peasants in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, she accepted the pleas to come and lead the Congress. Most leaders accepted her status as dowager empress.

How did she adjust to the brutality of India’s politics? How did she calibrate her strategies? It would make for a fascinating biography which is unlikely to be written. Unlikely by an Indian, in any case.

Two attempts were made to delegitimise Sonia when the Congress was weak. The first by the ambitious Sharad Pawar, leader of the Congress in Maharashtra, a state with 100 million people whose capital is Bombay. He revolted in 1999, saying a foreigner should not head the Congress. Few joined him, and he has become a minor player now. Sonia showed pragmatism by later allying with Pawar’s party, an act that kept Thackeray out of power.

The second attempt was made after the Congress won in 2004. BJP leaders, led by Sushma Swaraj, said they would not allow Sonia to take office.

The first election Sonia campaigned for, in 1998, was a disaster, and the Congress registered its worst performance. The next, the following year, was even poorer, and the Congress won only 114 seats out of 545.

Sonia was now Congress president. Then, in the third one, against expectations, she triumphed and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government fell after the ‘India Shining’ campaign.

Sonia could have easily become prime minister, winning from two Lok Sabha seats (one against Swaraj). The constitution was on her side. But she stepped aside in a moment of drama, broadcast live, which changed the way Indians looked at her. She said that she did not seek power and would not become prime minister. She remained Congress president, but Manmohan formed the government.

For us the notion of Tyag, of self-sacrifice, is big in the Hindu faith, which reveres the one who renounces the world.

Now the Congress is again India’s most powerful party and has a clutch of modern young leaders. Sonia has become its unquestioned leader. She has revived the Congress from depths that neither Nehru nor Indira saw, and it is unlikely that her easy-going husband would have done as well as she has.

Her behaviour since she anointed Manmohan has been exemplary. There has been little evidence that Manmohan has not been allowed to drive policy where he has control, such as over economics and foreign affairs. She has shielded him from the nonsense that comes to all who are in politics in the third world: the corruption, the venality and the arbitrariness. Manmohan is wise enough to let all of that pass while he tries to get on with his job. But it takes an exceptional person to absorb the nastiness voluntarily.

Sonia was pragmatic again in Gujarat after being convinced that a strong secular attack on Narendra Modi would backfire. However, her strategy of ignoring the butchering of Muslims has not worked yet. She gave charge to Shankarsinh Vaghela, a former BJP man who defected but he failed. Given the sort of liberal person she appears to be she must have been repelled by her own actions, but she put party above herself.

When the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, a state of 75 million people whose capital is Hyderabad, died in a helicopter crash a few weeks ago, Sonia showed a bit of steel. The chief minister’s son, in his late 30s, was backed to become leader even though he had no political experience.

Sonia blocked this because the son does not get good press. It will be difficult to keep the son out in future, but for now she has enforced discipline in a party which has not had it for a long time. She could do it in this case because she could point out to them that her own son could have become minister this time but chose not to.

Sonia’s preference appears to be to work with people who are modern, like her. S M Krishna, India’s foreign minister, is a Fulbright scholar and his deputy Shashi Tharoor worked at the UN. This promotion of such elites is good for us.

Sonia Gandhi is 63, and has led the world’s biggest political party, and one of its oldest, for 11 years. At her age, her mother-in-law had just come back to power and would spend another four years in office.

India is fortunate to have someone like her: we could have got Imelda Marcos.

Today the most powerful man in Pakistan is not from the majority sect. The most powerful person in India isn’t even Indian. We’re bigoted in many ways and the world keeps reminding us of that. But in many ways also we are above pettiness and we should not forget that.

The writer is director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: