Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader and widow of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was born on December 9, 1946, in Italy’s Màini district in a village called Lusiana. Her father, Stefano Maino, was in the housing business in Orbassano, the town where Sonia grew up. She went toEnglandin 1964 and enrolled at an English language school inCambridgecity. While she was working as a waitress at a Greek restaurant, she met Congress leader Indira Gandhi’s son and her future husband Rajiv Gandhi who was then a student ofTrinityCollege.
In her biography of Indira, Katherine Frank writes: “Sonia was terrified at the prospect of meeting Indira, then still a minister in [Prime Minister] Shastri’s government, but Indira chatted with her in French (which Sonia spoke more fluently than English) and put her completely at ease by saying ‘she herself had been young, extremely shy and in love, and she understood’ Sonia perfectly.” Rajiv and Sonia got married on February 25, 1968, and started living in the house of Indira, who was by then the prime minister.
The young couple avoided getting involved in politics. Their son, Rahul, was born in 1970, and daughter, Priyanka, in 1972. While Rajiv worked as an airline pilot, his brother Sanjay was actively involved in politics. But Rajiv eventually entered politics in 1982, two years after his brother died in a plane crash. In another couple of years, an even bigger tragedy would make him prime minister.
On October 31, 1984, when Indira stepped out of her home, she was repeatedly shot by her two bodyguards. After several seconds of frozen horror and disbelief at what had happened, the duo was overpowered and the prime minister’s aides put her limp body in a white Ambassador. Frank describes the aftermath: “Just as the car was about to depart, Sonia Gandhi came running down the path in her dressing gown, crying ‘Mummy! Oh my God, Mummy!’ She wrenched open the back seat car door and jumped in with her mother-in-law. The car sped off towards the All India Institute of Medical Sciences [AIIMS]. The three-mile journey in heavyDelhitraffic was ‘nightmarish’. No one spoke. Sonia Gandhi sat in the back cradling Indira’s head in her lap. Her dressing gown was soon soaked in blood.”
The doctors at AIIMS could not save the prime minister. Following Indira’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister after the Congress won the national election by a landslide, and Sonia was now in the public glare. Seven years later, tragedy again struck the Gandhis, and Rajiv was killed while campaigning for elections, by a suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu.
Sonia gave her consent to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s name as prime ministerial candidate and he became the prime minister after the next general election. But Sitaram Kesri’s elevation as party president did not go well with several Congress leaders. Eventually, Sonia joined the party as a primary member in 1997 and became party president the following year.
Outlook magazine in March 1998 described the jubilation in the Congress: “For Congressmen who have long been chanting the hymn ‘Sonia lao desh bachao’, fulfillment came on Saturday, March 14. It was a day marked by drama, but for a sizeable number of partymen, nothing could have been more gratifying than the announcement by Sharad Pawar that Mrs G had at last decided to take over the presidentship of the 113-year-old party from the much-discredited Sitaram Kesri. Sonia’s entry was in keeping with the prescription of the resident doctors of 24,Akbar Road that the return of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was the only panacea for a party on a downslide.”
However, in 1999, Pawar and Congress leaders P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, opposed Sonia’s right to become prime minister citing her foreign origins, and eventually formed their own Nationalist Congress Party. Sonia contested the 1999 Lok Sabha polls from two constituencies —Bellaryin Karnataka, and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, winning both seats and defeating BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in the former. With the BJP forming the government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia led the opposition.
After the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, proving most poll predictions wrong, a Congress-led coalition was all set to form the next government. Sonia had to simply walk on the red carpet that led to the prime minister’s chair. But, in what became a dramatic moment inIndia’s politics, she declined the country’s most powerful job, citing her “inner voice”. She told her party, “Throughout these past six years that I have been in politics, one thing has been clear to me. And that is, as I have often stated, that the post of prime minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice. Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.”
Her act of letting go evoked strong responses. Many praised her action. “Sonia Gandhi’s unique act has touched India, and specifically Hindu India, at a much deeper level too…But the full impact of her action will take months, perhaps years, to be felt. For the ideals of selflessness and renunciation that guided her action on Tuesday are embedded in the core of Hindu religion and philosophy. Innumerable texts remind Hindus that the truly good action is one that is taken without any attachment to its fruits,” the senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha wrote in Outlook.
In sharp contrast, the columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote: [M]iddle-class India felt a sense of deep unease at having to acknowledge an Italian-Indian Gandhi as its leader…Sooner or later…[the disquiet] would have progressed to humiliation and shame. The inner voice of Sonia Gandhi has stopped Indians from feeling small. The inevitable anti-incumbency backlash against a ‘foreign’ ruler would have been vicious. It would also have been laced with visceral hate. The inner voice of Sonia Gandhi has savedIndiafrom turning mean.”
Eventually, Manmohan Singh went on to become prime minister for two successive terms, with the Congress-led front winning the 2009 Lok Sabha polls as well. Sonia, however, continued to be the uncontested centre of power as far as the Congress party was concerned. Re-elected to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli in 2004 and 2009, she also served as chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. In January 2013 Rahul Gandhi was elevated to the post of party vice-president; clearly, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty remained the first family of the Congress.
The Economic Times in March 2013 looked back at Sonia Gandhi’s 15-year run as Congress president: “It is true the unique Sonia-Manmohan Singh working arrangement did dilute the authority of PMO. Yet, the fact is she has stood like a rock behind Singh all through. As a leader, Sonia’s biggest strength is that she understands her adequacies and limitations. It helps that she understands the Congress leaders’ affinity for revolt and sycophancy.”
Also on this day:
1918 — E.K. Nayanar, Communist leader and chief minister of Kerala, was born
1919 — Venkateswaran Dakshinamoorthy, Malayalam musician and music director, was born
1945 — Shatrughan Sinha, Hindi film actor and politician, was born
1946 — The Constituent Assembly of India met for the first time to write the Constitution of India
1975 — Dino Morea, Indian actor and model, was born
1981 — Dia Mirza, Indian model and actress, was born