India's Great White Hope

How did the daughter of an Italian builder come to be the most powerful woman in India? And what will she do with a power she never courted, and doesn't even want? Peter Popham reports on the rise and rise of Sonia Gandhi

SONIA GANDHI's election campaign has taken off like a rocket. She is not standing for any post - and last Tuesday, a day before the close of nominations, she announced that she would not even stand as a parliamentary candidate. But though her position is completely informal, she is the person around whom this election is revolving. As she flies around the country, from one rally to the next, support for her family's party, Congress, is palpably increasing. And if the party does really well as a result, the present leadership will come under immense pressure to make her party president and prime minister.

Until Tuesday, it was anybody's guess whether or not Sonia would stand. The Gandhi family's traditional constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh stood vacant if she wanted it. Was she merely hoping to give Congress a helpful shove? Was she going to help it avoid an electoral fiasco as a way of protecting her interests? Or was she going to go for broke, become an MP and party president, and make a serious stab at becoming prime minister of the world's second largest nation?

Nobody knew, because the choice was entirely a matter of her own volition. No alliances had to be fumbled together, no backs stabbed, no purges carried out. Sonia Gandhi had merely to arise, and proceed; forwards, backwards or sideways, exactly as she preferred.

For six years her desire had been to remain seated. In May 1991 her husband Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister, was assassinated in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and the next day, as crowds of grief-stricken supporters gathered outside Sonia's house in Delhi, the Congress Working Committee unanimously elected her the party's new president. When their spokesman, Pranab Mukherjee, was asked if Sonia had been consulted, he said, "There is no question of her refusing. She is a party member, and the decision will be communicated to her in due course."

But Sonia did refuse - not once but twice. In retrospect this was the crucial decision of her life, post-Rajiv. By turning down Congress's highest office she demonstrated that she did not intend to become a pawn in an Indian game. Instead she became more like a queen. At first, she was the mute symbol of her party's past glories and gradually fading hopes, the hermit of number 10 Janpath, the sphinx of Indian politics, who received and listened to everybody and kept her own counsel. And now, quite suddenly, when Congress's hopes (and its enemies' fears) of the dynasty had almost dwindled away, her position looks regal indeed. A visitation is announced: half a million people flock to witness it. Wherever she speaks, banners of welcome line the way and her cut-out image stands as big as a block of flats. Party workers line up to touch her feet. Editors struggle for the sake of fair play to keep her picture from dominating the front pages, and fail.

India, and Sonia, have another three weeks of this unreality to get through. But, whatever the result of the election at the end of February, it will merely move to another phase, another level; the dream, the nightmare, will never end.

IF EVER there was a case of greatness - or at least eminence - being thrust upon a person, Sonia Gandhi is it. If the daughter of a provincial Italian building contractor should in some flight of whimsy conceive the idea of becoming the most important woman in India, it's hard to imagine how she could begin to bring it about. Sonia Gandhi, nee Maino, has got there despite often wishing quite virulently that the opposite would happen, by pedalling furiously backwards. In India, where passivity and quiescence have for thousands of years been the dominant principles, her career has been the apotheosis of passivity.

At least, that's how it seems. But the closer that Sonia comes to political power, the more likely it appears that she is not, in fact, merely submitting to her fate. She is taking charge.

She was born in 1946, the daughter of Stefano and Paola Maino, and raised in the small town of Orbassano, outside Turin. Nothing very exciting seems to have happened to her until, 18 years later in 1965, she went to Cambridge to study English as a Foreign Language.

There, as she later wrote, she started frequenting the Varsity, a Greek restaurant and "the only place in Cambridge you could have something close to home food". And it was at the Varsity that she met Rajiv. "As our eyes met for the first time, I could feel my heart pounding ... as far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight..."

She had no idea who he was, and even when she learned about his grandfather, Nehru, who had died the previous year, and his mother, Indira, who was a minister in the government, she was little the wiser. "I had a vague idea that India existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants and jungles, but exactly where it was and what it was really all about, I was not sure."

Within three years, however, in February 1968, they were married. She had arrived in India for the first time the previous month, and was almost immediately pitched into the intricacies - the hand painting, the saris, the garlands - of an Indian wedding ceremony. She also had to come to terms with her adopted family's fame. "Strangest of all," she wrote, "were people's eyes - that gaze of curiosity which followed me everywhere. It was an exasperating experience - the total lack of privacy, the compulsion to constantly check myself and repress my feelings."

Fortunately, she had married fame but not ambition. Rajiv was a beautiful, calm, practical man, a hobbyist in love with his cameras and his hi-fi equipment and his record collection. He seemed innocent of larger concerns. Of Indira's two sons, it was Rajiv's younger brother Sanjay who was being prepared for power. Rajiv had studied mechanical engineering at London's Imperial College as well as at Trinity, Cambridge, but had left both places without a degree. But with marriage to Sonia looming, he decided to become an airline pilot. He returned to India and trained with Air India, and flew with them for 13 happy years. But then in 1980 Sanjay was killed - doing aerobatics in a small plane - and Rajiv was the only person his mother could turn to. Suddenly Rajiv and Sonia's prospects were transformed.

Just as she had shrunk from the family's celebrity, Sonia now resisted this new transformation with all her might. "For the first time in the 15 years that we had known each other," she wrote, "there was tension between Rajiv and me. I fought like a tigress - for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together ... for our freedom ... I was angry and resentful towards a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him - of that I was absolutely certain." But after a long struggle she resigned herself to the course their lives were taking. "He was my Rajiv, we loved each other, and if he felt that he ought to offer his help to his mother, then I would bow to those forces which were now beyond me to fight, and I would go with him ... " Within a year of his brother's death, Rajiv had quit his airline job and entered parliament as the representative of Amethi, the family's "pocket borough". Sonia Gandhi's mysterious journey had begun.

Four years later, following the murderous assault by Indian troops on secessionist guerrillas holed up inside the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguard and Rajiv was propelled into the premiership. He was prime minister for five years before allegations that he and Sonia had taken millions of dollars in kickbacks from an artillery deal with the Swedish firm Bofors helped lose him an election in 1989. Two years later, during another general-election campaign, Rajiv was pressing the flesh at a vast campaign rally, at a place called Sriperumpudur in Tamil Nadu, when he was murdered by a suicide bomber.

Thrice bereaved - brother-in-law, mother-in-law, husband - now Sonia confronted her fate. In 1991, with a terrible mechanical impulse, Congress tried to thrust her forward to lead them, despite the cruelty and absurdity of the idea. It was then that Sonia learned to say No. You would guess, looking at her face with the formidable thrust of jawline inherited from her father, that she had resources of determination and stubbornness. So it proved. No longer inhibited by the wishes of husband or mother-in-law, Sonia Gandhi was about to give the Congress Party a six-year-long lesson in Italian cussedness.

Sonia refused every attempt to wangle her into political life. She did not run away and bury herself in Orbassano or somewhere. She stayed on at 10 Janpath, the family home near the political heart of New Delhi. She kept busy. She edited the letters exchanged by Indira and Nehru, wrote a coffee-table book about her husband, and ran the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Foundation. But she gave no interviews - so far she has only given two interviews in her life. She received an endless stream of visitors. Guests of the Indian state routinely paid a call, confirming her stature as the nation's dowager. The Congress Party streamed through her living-room, she made them welcome and smiled and listened and sent them on their way, none the wiser about her thoughts.

Meanwhile Congress began to fall apart. Back in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi had been so insistent that she was to be succeeded by her son Sanjay that many ambitious young politicians left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Twenty years on, the result was an empty shell of a party: dynasty had been substituted for ideas and vision, and now that the dynasty had failed it was like one of India's vast public-sector factories, full of rusting machinery which no one could remember the point of, watched over by aged officials. In the election of 1996, Congress did worse than at any time in its history, winning only 140 seats.

Congress was finished: that was the conventional view. And its deadly rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the "communalist" party identified with upper-caste Hindu chauvinism, which improved its showing in election after election, seemed on the threshold of a dramatic success. As the largest party in parliament, it formed the new government in May 1996, but collapsed within a fortnight because it failed to make any alliances. Still most people felt it was only an election away from decisive victory. Its veteran leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party's face of (relatively) sweet reason, is usually regarded as the prime minister in waiting.

Still Sonia sat tight. Then, on 4 December 1997, shorn of the support of Congress that had propped it up, the so-called United Front coalition government of Inder Kumar Gujral collapsed, parliament was dissolved, and new elections were called for February 1998. Would Sonia throw her weight behind Congress? For weeks the speculation raged. The sphinx's jaw remained set, the Mona Lisa's smile unreadable. Then on 29 December she said Yes.

SONIA'S solo electioneering debut was only a partial success. To give them credit, the organisers had only about three days to prepare. With immaculate symbolism, she was to kick off half a mile up the road from the spot where Rajiv was assassinated: the martyred widow, the orphaned child (Priyanka, Sonia's strapping, beetle-browed 25-year-old daughter, came along for the ride), the tragic dynasty, the blood spilled for the motherland, all these excellent cards were to be smacked down on the table together. Madras, 40km east of Sriperumpudur, is a movie town to rival Bombay, and full of gifted poster artists, so the city and suburbs were quickly festooned with lurid paintings of Sonia, Rajiv and Indira.

Unfortunately, Congress's popularity has waned so drastically in this state that getting people to turn up was always going to be a problem. The organisers rounded up those susceptible to a small bribe from the nearby villages and brought them to the sandy yard of the local school in open lorries, like so many head of sheep. The organisers boldly claimed there were 80,000 people present, but the true figure looked closer to 10,000.

Sonia's performance - she spoke in English, after a brief greeting in Tamil - was as wooden and unelectrifying as you would expect from someone making their campaign debut at the age of 51. She waved too much and too frantically (middle-class Indians claimed to be shocked to see her sweating); her speech, explaining her years of private grief, her decision now to put herself forward as a campaigner, and her passionate identification with India, contained nothing controversial. But she was on her way.

Four days later, in the city of Bangalore, she gave almost the same speech, but the effect was different. This time she had the magic of numbers on her side, perhaps 60,000 people, many of them genuine Congress supporters, chanting slogans and straining at the barricades to get closer to the stage. A helicopter dumped 250kg of jasmine and marigold petals on the assembled multitude. And in Sonia's speech there was, for the first time, a note of daring. After clumping through the same topics as before in the same pedestrian manner, she suddenly changed gear.

Bofors, the arms scandal that contributed to Rajiv's defeat in 1989, has never been fully investigated. The general assumption in Delhi is that this has been at the wish of Sonia's family, whose influence has enabled them to keep it under wraps. At Bangalore, Sonia exploded this assumption: she herself, she insisted, was dying to know where the missing money had gone. "Tell us, tell us, tell us!" she cried. "I will be the happiest person if only they name the people responsible. Because on that day my husband will be vindicated. Because it will be proved" - her voice cracked with emotion - "the case was nothing but a vicious attempt to destroy his reputation."

The consensus was that this was an extremely cunning ploy. Whether or not her family did profit from the Bofors deal, it is highly unlikely that more information on the matter can be published before the election. She had seized the issue on which she was most vulnerable by the horns. She had proved - to the alarm of her enemies - that she could dominate the headlines by the force of her own words.

Bangalore was only the start. From there she went on - to Hyderabad and Goa in the south, Orissa in the East, to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab in the west and north - and the numbers continued to build. At almost every rally she threw in something provocative. She expressed deep grief for Operation Blue Star, the attack on the Golden Temple which had been ordered by her mother-in-law. Congress, she said, had been badly to blame for allowing the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu extremists five years ago - "If Rajiv had been prime minister," she insisted, "he would stand in front of it and they would have to kill him first. Such was ... his dedication to a secular India." Most startlingly, she identified the thinking of the BJP with that of the killers of Mahatma Gandhi, provoking a furious denial.

The BJP, on a roll before her entry, began to flounder. Sonia Gandhi is proving a difficult person to hit back at. She's never given a press conference. She gives no briefings. Her last interview - with Alexander Chancellor, for the Independent - took place nearly six years ago. She drops her bombs and disappears. It's all most unfair.

It's unfair in other ways, too. The most promising avenue of attack for her enemies, Bofors apart, is that she is a foreigner - "a white-skinned foreigner", as one BJP luminary put it starkly. (She was naturalised as an Indian 13 years ago, when Rajiv became prime minister.) And her background is Roman Catholic, which ought to be grist to the mill of nationalist Hindus.

Yet, frustratingly enough, her critics are finding it hard to strike home. Determined to broaden its appeal, the BJP is desperately diluting its "India for the Hindus" message, so it is precisely the wrong time to be shaking the fist at people of different religions. And while many educated voters can see manifest absurdity in an "Italian housewife", as one woman columnist put it, proposing to lead a nation of 950 million Asians, this seems to be the view of a minority. In one opinion poll after another, Sonia is emerging as the only popular prime ministerial alternative to the BJP's AB Vajpayee. In the most recent poll, Vajpayee was the choice of 44 per cent, Sonia of 25 per cent, while the present prime minister, IK Gujral, was in third place with only 5 per cent.

Because further down the social scale, the absurdity of Sonia as prime minister is less obvious. For India's illiterate masses, their political leaders have generally been remote, exotic, alien figures. The Nehru family was always "wheatish" in complexion, speaking English as their first language, foreign in education and manners. Indira, whose family were Kashmiri Pandits by caste, fell in love with a Gujarati Parsi, Feroze Gandhi, and married him with Nehru's blessing, thus smashing caste taboo and placing her family outside the caste system - tantamount to being foreign.

That Sonia Gandhi hails from the other end of the world doesn't mean much to these voters. She occupies the right place in the right family tree. As a daughter-in-law and a wife she has been tragically bereaved. She is courageous. And she has one other weapon which none of her enemies can do anything about: in the land of skin whiteners, she has the fairest skin in Indian politics.

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