Sonia Gandhi

"The Congress is unique. Our uniqueness arises from several basic features of the Congress`s history, its character, its ideology and the legacy of its leadership. I am convinced that the time is ripe for a massive renaissance of our political culture so that we build that society which combines compassion with competence, equity with excellence." - Sonia Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi


Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the Congress Party in India.

Although Sonia could have become the first foreign-born Indian Prime Minister, she declined the opportunity.

In the May 2005 Parliamentary Elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, Sonia led the Congress Party to victory over the ruling BJP.

Sonia's victory was aided by anti-incumbency sentiments as well as the large-scale disenchantment of millions of people belonging to the lower classes, who have been mostly left behind in the economic reforms exercise of the BJP.

Sonia's rapid rise in the political arena highlights two interesting aspects of Indian politics - In a country, where Hindus account for a majority of the population, Indian voters have not hesitated to embrace a Roman Catholic Videshi (Hindi word for foreigner).

Sonia's quick rise to the top of the Congress party illustrates the weakness of the Congress party and indeed the Indian political system. As political scientists like Samuel Huntington have written, in mature political systems the path to the top often takes decades during which time the leader gains experience in lesser positions and learns the art of governance in the process.

Sonia has so far had very limited experience in the rough and tumble of politics and almost no experience in the art of governance. This raises questions of how effective Sonia can be as head of the ruling party of a complex nation like India with its myriad castes and religions and multitude of problems.

If Sonia had become Prime Minister, she would have been the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to become Prime Minister of India following in the footsteps of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Early Years

Sonia Gandhi nee Maino was born on December 9, 1946 in Orbassano, near Turin in Italy. Her father Stefano Maino was a building contractor. Sonia's mother's name is Paola Maino.

Sonia's father died in 1983. Her mother and two sisters still live in Orbassano, Italy.

Sonia is a Roman Catholic. During her childhood days, Sonia attended a Roman Catholic school run by the Salesian Order.

Sonia met Rajiv Gandhi in 1965 in England, where both were studying.

Rajiv, son of late prime minister Indira Gandhi and grandson of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was studying engineering.

Sonia was studying for a Diploma in English. The two fell in love and were married in December 1968.

The marriage took place in Delhi. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage.

The couple had two children, Rahul Gandhi (born 1970) and Priyanka Gandhi (born 1972). Despite belonging to the influential Nehru family, Sonia and Rajiv avoided all involvement in politics. Rajiv worked as an airline pilot while Sonia took care of her family. When Indira was ousted from office in 1977 in the aftermath of the Indian Emergency, the Rajiv family moved abroad for a short time. When Rajiv entered politics in 1982 after the death of his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash in 1980, Sonia continued to focus on her family and avoided all contact with public. She acquired Indian citizenship in 1983 after 14 years of her marriage.

Indira Gandhi

Sonia's mother-in-law Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India at the time of Sonia's marriage to Rajiv.

Indira Gandhi was a formidable woman and politician, who had even senior members of her party quaking in fear.

India's political institutions came under considerable pressure during Indira's rule. The nadir of her rule was the declaration of a state of emergency in 1975 that curtailed the rights of citizens. Disenhanted voters responded by inflicting a crushing defeat in the 1977 elections. However, serious infighting in the Janata party provided Indira an opportunity to return to power in 1980.

Initially, Sonia may have been terrified about meeting Indira.

According to an account by Jay Adams and Philip Whitehead, Rajiv had arranged a meeting between Sonia and Indira, who was on a visit to London. "Sonia was so terrified at the prospect of meeting the formidable Mrs Gandhi that she panicked on the drive to London and Rajiv had to cancel the engagement," write Adams and Whitehead in The Dynasty - The Nehru-Gandhi Story.

Indira and Sonia seem to have been attached to each other. In his biography of Indira, Inder Malhotra writes that Sonia and Indira "became extremely fond of each other....Indeed, Indira delegated to Sonia much of the responsibility for running the household."

It's possible that Indira's fondness for Sonia may have increased after Indira's other daughter-in-law Manekha Gandhi left the household in a fall-out with Indira after her husband Sanjay Gandhi's death.

In her introduction to Freedom's Daughter, Sonia writes, "[Indira] possessed great intellect, a rational perception and an acute understanding of peoples and problems."

Indira's life came to an abrupt end after she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 in retaliation for her policies in the North Indian state of Punjab, home to the Sikh community.

When Indira was shot by her security guards, it was a weeping Sonia who took her bleeding mother-in-law to the hospital.

Rajiv Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia's husband and Indira Gandhi's elder son, was a pilot with the state-owned Indian Airlines.

Unlike his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi, who had entered the hurly-burly world of politics and was enmeshed in various scandals, Rajiv led a low-profile life.

Rajiv is also described as a courteous person with fine manners. Political commentators have remarked that Rajiv's personality was so contrasting to that of his brother Sanjay.

Rajiv entered the political world after his brother Sanjay Gandhi's death in 1980 in an aircrash in Delhi. Sonia is said to have been bitterly opposed to Rajiv entering the political world.

Rajiv himself is believed to have been reluctant to initially respond to Indira's call.

Rajiv "was reluctant to take the plunge into politics even though he realized that he could not deny his mother the help she needed and was asking for," writes Inder Malhotra

Ultimately, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure had its effect and Rajiv joined the Great Indian political circus paving the way ultimately for Sonia's entry into the political arena many years later.

Although Rajiv was initially hailed as "Mr Clean" his reputation was soon tainted by a scandal surrounding the procurement of big guns from Swedish defense firm Bofors.

Political Career

Despite the family`s heavy involvement in politics, Sonia Gandhi had, in fact, shown aversion to politics for long. She detested politics and opposed her husband Rajiv entering it. Sonia and Rajiv avoided all involvement. Rajiv worked as an airline pilot, and Sonia took care of her family. In 1977 when Indira was ousted from office and when Rajiv entered politics in 1982, Sonia continued to focus on her family and avoided all contact with publicity.

After the assassination of her mother-in-law, Rajiv Gandhi was elected as Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi`s involvement with Indian public life began. She adopted Indian citizenship in 1983, fifteen years after her marriage to Rajiv, when, it is speculated, she realized that her husband`s fortunes as prime minister might be affected by her Italian citizenship. As the Prime Minister`s wife she acted as his official hostess and also accompanied him on a number of state visits. She was also involved in looking after her husband`s constituency of Amethi. In 1984, she actively campaigned against her sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi who was running against Rajiv in Amethi.

Gandhi did not enter politics until after her husband`s assassination on May 21, 1991. Following his death she was pressured by the Congress Party to enter politics and to continue the party`s dynastic tradition of being led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sonia was fervent in her denunciation of politics and politicians. She is said to have stated that she would have rather seen her children beg than enter into the maelstrom of Indian political life. Since Rajiv Gandhi`s death, Sonia had led a life of near abstinent for six years but for her appearances at a few official functions. She touched many a heart when she poured out her `vedna` (agony) at a public meeting a few years ago in Amethi about the delay in the probe of Rajiv assassination case.

After her refusal, the party settled on the choice of P V Narasimha Rao as leader and, subsequently, Prime Minister. The Congress fortunes continued to decrease and it was feared that it would no longer be the largest party in the parliament. Several senior leaders such as Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Mamata Banerjee, G K Moopanar, P.Chidambaram, Jayanthi Natarajan etc were in open revolt against the incumbent President Sitaram Kesri and quit the party, splitting the Congress into many factions. Sonia joined the Congress Party as a primary member in the Calcutta Plenary Session at 1997. She officially took charge of the Congress party as its president in 1998. She was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1999 from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh as well as Bellary in Karnataka. Congress, which was forecast not to cross the double-digit mark, managed a tally of 141 seats, largely due to her charismatic presence during the campaign.

In the year 1999, Sonia Gandhi was elected the Leader of the Opposition of the 13th Lok Sabha. Her opponents during her campaign mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party played up her foreign birth, her failure to take Indian citizenship for 15 years after her wedding, and her lack of fluency in Hindi or any Indian language despite her assertion that she had "become an Indian in her heart the day she became Indira Gandhi`s daughter-in-law". Her Italian origin gave her opponents propaganda grist. Three senior leaders Sharad Pawar, Purno A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar challenged her right to try to become India`s Prime Minister, given that she was not born of Indian blood or soi. In May 1999, Sonia Gandhi offered to resign from the Congress Party leadership after that.

When the BJP-led NDA formed a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee, she took on the office of the Leader of Opposition. As Leader of Opposition she called a no-confidence motion against the NDA government led by Vajpayee in 2003. The motion was moved after the Defence Ministry refused to disclose the findings of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) probe into the allegations of corruption in purchase of caskets during the Kargil War. She used the opportunity to kick off the Congress` election campaign while the motion was resoundingly defeated in the NDA dominated house. In her own speech to open the debate, she accused the government in handling the Kargil crisis and the violence in the North East. She also charged the government ministers with profiteering from the war. In their replies the government did not answer any questions raised by Mrs Gandhi but focused their attack on her "foreign origins." A nationwide campaign was launched by Sonia Gandhi in the 2004 general elections, criss-crossing the country on the Aam Aadmi the Ordinary people slogan in contrast to the `India Shining` slogan of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) alliance. In the election ,she won by a large margin from the Rae Bareilly constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Following the unexpected defeat of the NDA, she was widely expected to be the next Prime Minister of India. On May 16, she was unanimously chosen to lead a 15-party coalition government with the support of the left, which was subsequently named the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Again a a storm of controversy raised by the NDA over her `foreign origin`. Leaders like Sushma Swaraj threatened to shave their hair, as a protest, among others. Gandhi declined the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha. That position would have indicated that she was the party`s nominee for Prime Minister. Her action was attacked by the opponents as a political stunt in which the ultimate aim was to gain an absolute majority for the Congress Party in Parliament. While her act was hailed as an act of renunciation.

Several members of the National Democratic Alliance like notably Subramaniam Swamy and Sushma Swaraj claimed that there were legal reasons that omitted her from the Prime Minister`s post. And indeed from Parliament. They pointed, in particular, to Section 5 of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955, which they claimed implied `reciprocity`. This was contested by others and eventually the suits were dismissed by the Supreme Court of India.

In a speech given to Congress M.Ps in the Central Hall of Parliament, she finally said that she had never aimed to be Prime Minister and her entry into politics was only to preserve secularism and protect the poor. She said that after listening to the promptings of her "inner voice" she had no desire to occupy the Prime Minister`s position. Amid indignant shouts from her supporters, she said, "I request you to accept my decision and to recognize that I will not reverse it. ... It is my inner voice, my conscience." Lawmakers surrounded the podium and begged her to reconsider. On May 18, she recommended noted economist Dr. Manmohan Singh for the Prime Minister`s post. Dr. Singh had served as India`s finance minister in a previous Congress party government headed by P.V. Narshima Rao, and is considered by many as the chief architect of India`s economic reforms of the early 1990s.

Sonia Gandhi retained the post of the Leader of the Majority and the Chairperson of the UPA. This enabled her to keep political control of the party and to deal with the political fire fights in the giant coalition government while leaving the management of the country in the hands of Manmohan Singh. On March 23, 2006, Sonia Gandhi resigned from the Lok Sabha and also the chairperson`s position of the National Advisory Council. According to Indian electoral law, an elected person cannot hold an office of profit (meaning paid posts). She was re-elected from her constituency Rae Bareilly in May 2006. She played an important role in making the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act into law, as chairperson of the National Advisory Committee.

As an Author

Sonia has authored two books: Rajiv and Rajiv’s World.

In addition, she has also edited Freedom’s Daughter and Two Alone, Two Together (two volumes of letters exchanged between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi from 1922 to 1964).



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