Fifteen years later the first shadow of tension fell across the relationship between Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. They were in Italy when news of Sanjay’s death in an air crash reached them. Indira Gandhi was shattered; Rajiv was under pressure to leap in to the Congress and politics.
Faced with Sonia’s stubborn reluctance he dithered. “I remember that long year as being one of complete helplessness with every minute drawing us closer to the abyss. Finally I realised that I could no longer bear to watch Rajiv being torn apart”, wrote Sonia.
Thereafter, everything fell in to the pattern of adulation, power, glory and violent death that Sonia has lived with for the last 40 years.
Recounted in Sonia’s simple prose it’s a story of remarkable endurance, courage and resolve.
It shows how a shy provincial girl who was so terrified of meeting her prospective mother-in-law first time could change history in a foreign land. Sonia has done that three times. The first was 1998 when she took over a congress that was threatening to implode and nursed it back to life and victory in 16 states.
The second time she led a guerilla campaign tramping through India’s backwaters in summer heat to make congress the single largest party after elections 2004 finally by declining to lead the government after being asked by President Kalam to do so she irrevocably raised the bar for political morality and personal integrity.
Unlike dogma driven outfits like the RSS-BJP or the communist parties congress is held together by the glue of power or the charisma of leaders preferably from the Nehru Gandhi clan. After Rajiv’s death Sonia had withdrawn into the fortress like confines of 10 Jan path.
Congress was being led by the uncharismatic Narasimha Rao. His strategy of playing off satraps against each other consolidated his position but created a vicious atmosphere within the party.
Soon after the 1996 election defeat Rao was shoved aside and then in congress Sita Ram Keri took over probably to preside over the last rites of India’s largest party.
Sonia has confessed that during this phase as congressmen implored her to lead the party she couldn’t pass by portraits of Indira and Rajiv without feeling pangs of guilt.
She led the 1998 campaign but congress lost from 1998 to 2004 and two successive BJP led coalitions ruled India. Meanwhile Sonia went about organising the party streamlining decision making and seeking consensus.
When Pawar, Anwar and Sangma rebelled she forced congress to choose between them and her. Those who want to walk with me should do so with their heads and their hearts. Those who have an iota of uncertainty are free to chart their own course.
Sonia is shy. After her marriage she was unsettled by the public gaze that followed her around. She felt resentful and kept asking herself why those eyes were so insistent.
Her reticence had been reinforced by her mother-in-law’s strictures one has to be extra careful about one’s manners and behaviour otherwise one brings discredit not only to herself but also to the family. Yet she surmounted these handicaps dealing with hundreds of people in a single day.
Congress campaign 2004 lacked the pyrotechnics of the BJP. It had only one campaigner. From January to May 24, Sonia Gandhi tramped nearly 60,000 km. across the country
One day the sphinx rose from her frozen state and got into the rough and tumble of politics. Rivals in the business had dubbed her a neophyte and thought she could never master political dialogue, leave alone votespeak.
In just over five years, Sonia Gandhi by renouncing Prime Ministership has surprised the nation, shocked her partymen and stymied a fierce opposition campaign.
Few could earmark the stages in this grand transformation as facile a change as a baby learning to walk. From coming across as a very private closed and introverted person during her days next to Rajiv today Sonia seems to have changed dramatically due to events and situation in her life.
Personal tragedy perhaps helped steel her personality. She became tough person because of her stoic bearing. There are additional qualities that we tend to ignore like her determination which has led her to revive a decaying party.
More importantly, she does not appear to be a pushover and is highly intelligent and decisive. Her priorities are clear and her hard work and tact have got her here.
It is this quiet resolve that drove her to politics itself. At first the steps were tentative but Sonia had started with an advantage that few leaders have—of supreme unquestioned leadership.
Except of course for Sharad Pawar who quit over her foreign origins but is now back in the alliance. Yet her prime position did not avert a trial by fire. Psychiatrists see the barrage of criticism against her inexperience and the hate campaign over her origins as critical to the mutation in her persona.
Her personality has subtly changed into one of firm determination especially in the face of negative ratings. Last week when she stepped back from the podium to appoint Manmohan Singh as PM the master stroke came as an example of democratic functioning.
On the personal front she had withdrawn after establishing her credentials and after showing the world that she indeed had a stake. She was probably content that the battle has been won. It is evidence of her maturity as a politician. The move was proof of her extraordinary foresight.
It shows how calculative smart she is. She would have considered the government besides probably realising the negative impact of the opposition’s criticisms if she had become PM it also showed how her emotional vocabulary is as inscrutable as ever.
First impressions of India I had a vague idea that India existed somewhere in the world with its snaks, elephants and junglesOn marrying the PM’s son. When I first come to Delhi in 1968 my father had given me a return ticket. But Delhi was the place of my second birth and ticket like my past was lost in the mists of time.
On Emergency: The Indira Gandhi I kenw was a democrat at heart to the core and although circumstances compelled her to take that action. She was never comfortable with it.
I fought like a tigeress for him for us and for our children and for the life we made together on Rajiv joining poltiics. When I married and joined Indira Gandhi’s household I was welcomed with open arms.
Through them I was also accepted by the country. Today I consider myself a daughter of mother India. The remains of my husband lie in this land. And till the day I die this will also be my land. For me that (becoming PM) is not a priority. My priority is to defeat this government. Let’s see when the time comes.
And after she won, she delivered the stunning blow to the opposition. She waited to be offered the top job then declined proving you can’t renounce what you don’t have? This elevated her above the power grab politics of lesser people.
By handing over the job to Manmohan Singh she showed what she admired decency, rectitude and efficiency. Now as she steps out to spread her distinctive political values across India one opinion can be hazarded Rajiv’s widow and Indira’s daughter in law—the girl from Bassano is a greater politician than either.