Her aversion to politics is no secret. She fought tooth and nail to hold back her husband from joining this treacherous game. But destiny had planned otherwise. It has been a long and arduous journey since 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. But Sonia Gandhi is stoic. She is not the one who would give up easily.
Born as Sonia Maino in 1946 near Turin in Italy in a working class family, Sonia’s life drastically changed its course when she met Rajiv Gandhi, at Cambridge in 1964. The couple married in 1968 and she moved to India. She initially disliked Indian food and clothes. But she spent the 1970s becoming steeped in Indian culture.
Sonia Gandhi was against Rajivs foray into politics after Sanjay Gandhi’s accidental death in a plane crash. She is on record as having said, “For the first time, there was tension between Rajiv and me. I fought like a tigress for him, for us and our children, above all, for our freedom”. She was seldom seen in public, and led a very private life. In 1984, the assassination of her mother-in-law did comparatively little to make her more visible.
Even after Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent to the Prime Minister’s office, she preferred to remain on the sidelines. However, the assassination of her husband in 1991 paved the way for Sonia’s entry into public limelight. Senior members of the congress sought to revive their fortunes by encouraging her to take an active part in politics. She resisted membership in the Congress, indeed the offer of presidency of the party for several years, but eventually joined it in 1997. She became the party president in 1998, thereby becoming the fifth member of the Nehru clan, to hold this important post.
While she was praised for having saved the Congress from extinction, at the same time the party’s continuing misfortunes through the end of 2001 were secretly, and sometimes openly, attributed to Sonia. Before the surprise 2004 election win, Mrs Gandhi’s future in Indian politics had looked bleak. But the ‘Gandhi’ name is still revered in India and Congress looked to her to translate this feeling into votes.
Her political opponents attempted to rake her Italian origin as an election issue saying that the choice of the voters was between an Indian and a foreign leader. But their appeal to Xenophobia apparently fell on deaf ears. Media analyst Bhaskar Rao said, “The foreign origin (of Sonia Gandhi) was not an issue”. Long before the election, she surrendered her Italian passport in favour of full Indian citizenship. Sonia herself said in a television interview, “I never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I am not. I am Indian”. Her campaign was boosted by the entry of her son, Rahul as a candidate. Her daughter Priyanka has also campaigned energetically for her from time to time.
Inspite of all ups and downs, Sonia Gandhi has not forgotten her husband’s sudden demise. She was strident in her criticism of the slow investigation of the inquiry around her husband’s assassination. It has been argued, not without reason, that her own entry into politics might have been motivated partly by the desire to keep allegations of widespread corruption in the last few years of Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime ministership from becoming proven public facts. In the event, numerous other controversies have dogged her entry into Indian politics. Right wing organizations have in particular doubted her allegiance to India. In all these controversies, Sonia has come out clean.
The torchbearer of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty surprised everyone by turning down the plum post of the Prime Minister, after her success in general elections of 2004. She said that her inner voice had dissuaded her from taking the top job, but she remained the leader of the Congress party. Instead, she proposed Manmohan Singh’s name for Prime Ministership. Manmohan Singh reluctantly accepted the offer. She said that she felt that an economist and the architect of India’s reforms would very well carry the responsibilities on his shoulders. She, thus, proved that it was not for the sake of power that she forayed into politics.
In the end, it can be concluded that she is the force to reckon with to day. The Congress looks towards her as an apostle of the weaker sections of the society and a symbol of women empowerment.