The Saturday Profile: Sonia Gandhi, Indian Politician - The widow who would be queen

THIS WAS the week that Sonia Gandhi very nearly became India's new prime minister. Yesterday her scheme came unstuck, and the Congress, the party of which she is president, conceded that its attempt to glue together enough small parties to form a coalition had failed. But it was a close-run thing. And on the other side of the general election that now appears almost certain, it could well happen.

It was a tantalising moment: when the impossible absurdity that has menaced India for most of the Nineties almost came to pass; when the second largest nation in the world, whose modern history revolves around its struggle to shuck off foreign rule, nearly found itself governed once again by a foreigner.

Sonia Gandhi is not, legally speaking, Italian any more. She has Indian citizenship, though her detractors like to point out that she became an Indian only after her husband Rajiv became Prime Minister, when it was politically essential. She has lived in India for 30 years; she wears, in public at least, only saris and shalwar-kameez; she speaks Hindi, though opinions differ as to how fluent she is.

For educated Indians, however, all this is mere stage dressing, props to bamboozle the masses. Sonia Gandhi is as Italian as fettucine, Prada or the Vatican. The notion of being ruled by her, for many Indians with some sense of national dignity and integrity, is deeply upsetting.

No one says this in public. Every nation has its proprieties and inhibitions. India's self-image, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi, is liberal through and through, and to voice something as crass as racial discrimination, even against a paleface, is not done. But they think it, and they say it among themselves, and to any foreigner curious enough to ask. In public all is smiling quiescence, the head-wagging Indian gesture of cheerful assent. It is left to Bal Thackeray, quasi-Fascist leader of Bombay's Shiv Sena Party, to say on the record what is on everybody's mind. "If we must be ruled by foreigners again," he stormed during last year's general election, "let's invite the British back. At least they had 200 years' experience."

This week, Sonia Gandhi came close to pulling it off. The Congress Party - founded, as her supporters never fail to mention, by an Englishman - has the second largest number of seats in Lok Sabha (India's House of Commons). With the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) coalition felled by a single vote in last Saturday's vote of confidence, Congress stood again on the threshold of power. The party was united behind Sonia Gandhi. She has no parliamentary seat, but in the Indian system that was no obstacle. Within the statutory six months of attaining power, a safe seat would undoubtedly have been made available for her.

Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the one-time Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is Congress's unquestioned leader because the dynastic principle is the only principle that holds her party together. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, was followed (though not immediately) by his daughter Indira. (Her husband, Feroze Gandhi, had no connection to the Mahatma, but the name's resonance was undoubtedly useful.) Indira groomed her son Sanjay to take over; when he died in a flying accident she turned to his elder brother, Rajiv, a professional pilot and a most reluctant politician.

Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister when his mother was murdered by her bodyguard in 1984. And when Rajiv himself was blown up by an assassin in 1991, the party turned, with a sort of weary automatism, to his widow.

Sonia said no. If educated India confronts the likelihood of coming under the sway of an "Italian housewife" with serious misgivings, these are more than matched by those of the lady herself. After her husband Rajiv's death, the Congress Party, in a display of stunning arrogance and insensitivity, elected her president without taking her opinion on the matter. But she refused to toe the line: she rejected the office. Deprived of Gandhis, and lacking any other effective glue, Congress flailed.

These were the years, the early Nineties, when Congress, which for most of the previous 40 years had ruled India (with brief interludes in opposition) as if by divine right, began to fall apart. It was riven by corruption and haunted by failure. At independence, India was seen as the new Asian nation most likely to succeed. Forty years on it was a wounded giant, its vast potential still unfulfilled, while Japan and China - and even Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - raced ahead. Congress, India's natural party of government, had to take the blame.

Yet more than failure, more than corruption, it was the lack of a dynastic heir that troubled Congress most deeply. So faction-ridden had the party become, that only a Gandhi could hold it together.

Installed in her guarded and heavily reinforced Lutyens bungalow at Number 10 Janpath, New Delhi, tending the Gandhi legacy, editing her mother-in-law's letters and her husband's photographs, Sonia Gandhi received an endless stream of Congress Party grandees imploring her to take command. She smiled and listened and sent them on their way.

Because while Jawaharlal Nehru (the son of an important figure in Congress) and Indira Gandhi and Sanjay and Rajiv were all, to a greater or lesser extent, groomed for power, reared with the smell of power in their nostrils, Sonia Gandhi's case was very different.

She was born Sonia Maino, the daughter of a small-time provincial builder in Orbassano near Turin, in 1946. She passed a provincial Italian childhood of blameless blankness. Then, at age 18, she went to Cambridge - not, as is often flatteringly written, to attend the university there, but to work as an au pair and study English as a foreign language.

Rajiv was studying mechanical engineering at Trinity College when they first met. She had no idea who he was; at the time she had only the vaguest idea about India, "with its snakes, elephants and jungles", she wrote. "Exactly where it was and what it was all about, I was not sure."

Overriding strong objections from her father, she followed Rajiv back to India, married him in a Hindu ceremony and, as Indira's trusted daughter- in-law, began her long apprenticeship in what it means to be a member of the all-powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

What it has meant for this European woman from a modest and conventional background is a life of terrifying excess: excess of fame and public exposure, excess of power, excess of adulation, excess of peril and suffering. It has meant an excess of all these things, not through deliberate choice and ambition but without choice, through a sort of karmic inevitability.

Her husband Rajiv had no hunger and little aptitude for politics; if his brother Sanjay had not killed himself performing a stupid stunt, he would have continued with the career he loved, as an airline pilot. Instead his brother died and the dreadful dynastic vortex sucked him into politics; and then his mother died and the same vortex sucked Rajiv into the highest office in the land.

To her credit, Sonia Gandhi has never concealed her feelings about all this. She hated it, and she fought "like a tigress", as she said, to prevent it happening. But the vortex was too strong. When Indira Gandhi was shot by her bodyguard, Sonia was on the scene at once, cradling her mother- in-law's dying body. A mere seven years later, when Rajiv died, there was nobody to cradle: the Tamil Tiger suicide bomber's device had blown him to pieces.

Throughout the Nineties, Sonia Gandhi has resisted the vortex of Indian politics. She stayed in Delhi, a "sphinx", an "enigma" to the Indian journalists whose request for interviews she invariably turned down. She met everyone who mattered, domestically and internationally; a trip to 10 Janpath was on the itinerary of every visiting nabob. But she kept her own counsel. For Congress, consigned now to opposition, she became the great imponderable, the party's one hopeless hope.

Then, quite suddenly, in 1997 she changed her mind. She joined the party with which she was so closely identified. She made angry speeches, chastising government for the sluggishness of the inquiry into Rajiv's death. In December 1997 a general election was called, and after an agony of suspense Sonia Gandhi threw herself into the campaign.

The effect was electric. Congress immediately came back to life, and the BJP, which had seemed be heading for a famous victory, faltered. Sonia started her campaign at a place called Sriperumbudur, the small town outside Madras where her husband had been murdered. Her delivery, in strongly accented English, was wooden, her response to the cheers of the crowd timid and hesitant. But the speech she gave hit all the right buttons: her husband's martyrdom, her widow's pain, her love and devotion to India.

It was intensely personal, but then the whole significance of her involvement in politics is indeed deeply personal. That is why she matters.

In the great Gandhi tradition, Sonia kept up a ferocious schedule of engagements during the election campaign, criss-crossing the vast country by car and helicopter, addressing millions of people. The result was not the return to power of which Congress had dreamed, but a convincing recovery. The rot had been stopped.

She has not wavered since. Last spring, she was unanimously elected party president. As such, she has quickly proved far more than a figurehead, getting closely involved in the selection of parliamentary candidates and banning destructive parliamentary tactics.

The BJP responded by ignoring her as far as they could. But at the same time the Hindu nationalist right adopted a more oblique and sinister tactic: they persuaded their extremist allies, especially a group called Bajrang Dal, to launch unprovoked attacks on Christians in many different parts of India. In the worst case, in February, an Australian missionary and his two small sons were burned to death in their Jeep.

The Hindu nationalist high command will never accept responsibility for these assaults, but few doubt that they are ultimately to blame. The idea, it appears, was to goad Mrs Gandhi into standing up for the Christian victims, thus enabling her enemies to identify her with the weak and marginal Christian community, who constitute only about 5 per cent of India's population.

It was a dirty tactic, to which Sonia Gandhi responded with circumspection and cunning: by undertaking a pilgrimage to Hindu sacred sites. The war on Christians was a warning to Sonia of the crude attacks she must now learn to weather. This past week of high political drama in Delhi has been a second blooding. Now this improbable figure is truly braced for the battle to come.

Life Story

Origins: born in 1946 in Orbassano, a small town outside Turin, daughter of a prosperous building contractor, Stefano Maino

Career: au pair at Cambridge from 1965; worked as a picture restorer and housewife during her marriage in Delhi. Following the deaths of her mother-in-law Indira and her husband Rajiv, she became archivist-in-chief of the Gandhi dynasty

Nicknames: Madam, Mona Lisa, the Sphinx, the Enigma - all gathered during the years 1991-96 when she kept the Congress Party guessing about her intentions

She says: of her first meeting with Rajiv: "As our eyes met, I could feel my heart pounding. We greeted each other, and as far as I was concerned it was love at first sight"

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