Sonia Gandhi: The outsider

She arrived in India, a former au pair from Italy. Nearly four decades later, she was dismissed as a political no-hoper, a poor speaker who could not even hold a paid audience and unworthy of the famous dynasty she had married into. So how did she defy the odds to win over the biggest democracy on earth?

The woman who today stands on the brink of power in the world's largest democracy is an accidental politician. An Italian au pair studying English conversation in Cambridge, her love affair with a tall and handsome though not especially brilliant Indian student was like a million other student romances: it had the families on both sides tut-tutting furiously.

And there it might easily have ended - with tears, sad letters, fading memories. But Sonia Maino was a good Roman Catholic girl; he was Rajiv Gandhi, the son and grandson of Indian prime ministers. And now here she is, aged 57, smiling hugely, comfortable in the Indian sari she has worn now for more than half her life, but unable to disguise how astounding, even for her, is this latest twist of fate.

No one predicted the Congress Party would win this Indian election. It was going to be another Hindu nationalist landslide, another sickening humiliation for India's natural party of government under Sonia's feeble leadership. Instead, the party triumphed, and the prime ministership is hers for the taking. She keeps pinching herself, her expression suggests, to check that she's awake.

Her Hindu nationalist opponents have tormented her for years with the fact that she is a foreigner, although she has held Indian nationality for 20 years. Sixty years after the Raj, they rage, must India once again be ruled by a white? But as the election result proves, the fact of her foreign birth is not all that important to most Indians, though her pale skin is much admired. What matters is the family to which she belongs. Sonia Gandhi is only the latest example in post-colonial South and South-east Asia of the iron law of dynasty.

Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, rival widows in Bangladesh, Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, Cory Aquino in the Philippines - across an immense swathe of the globe, the parties that achieved independence have, in country after country, turned to the daughters or widows of earlier leaders for direction in the second, third or fourth generations.

But of all those women who have grieved their way to power, Sonia is the most improbable. Rajiv Gandhi himself was an accidental leader: the sweet, easy-going airline pilot, the limit of whose ambition was to be promoted from Air India's domestic to its international service. His younger brother, Sanjay, was Indira Gandhi's favourite and heir apparent, a brilliant, authoritarian brat, notorious in India even today for his attempt to force contraception on the masses.

But before Sanjay could step into Indira's shoes he died while executing an aerial stunt over Delhi. Rajiv was suddenly forced to give up his beloved career and take up politics. Then his mother, while prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard, and Rajiv was catapulted into the hot seat. In 1991, campaigning for a second term, Rajiv himself was killed, blown to bits by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, who draped a garland round his neck before detonating the explosives strapped to her. By a succession of ghastly bereavements, this stiff, terribly shy Delhi housewife, whose absorbing interest outside the home was restoring pictures, found herself the natural choice to become the most powerful person in the country.

It was obvious that no one in the world could have wanted it less. Rajiv, when the moment came, gripped the chalice he could not refuse. Sonia, besieged by the obsequious worthies of the All-India National Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, founded by an English spiritualist, Annie Besant, in the late 19th century and which had ruled India almost without interruption since the departure of the British, thrust it away. For seven years she kept the party guessing. She made no political statements of any kind. She refused all requests for interviews. She was practically a recluse in the family home in the broad, shady boulevards of New Delhi. She appeared not to have a political bone in her body. On the rare occasions when she was photographed, she looked profoundly ill at ease.

But because of the iron law of dynasty, the immense charisma of her family's name and the inability of Congress to look elsewhere for leadership, her destiny was unavoidable. Only by abandoning India and running back to Piedmont could she have escaped her fate, and perhaps not even then.

But with painful slowness she accepted her destiny. After years of sphinx-like inactivity, in 1998, she allowed herself to be voted president of Congress's governing council. In the general election of that year she went on the stump on her own behalf for the first time, and at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, the town where her husband had been murdered seven years before, she gave her maiden speech.

She was hopeless, and hopelessly wooden. She read out her speech, partly in Hindi and partly in English, with a strong Italian accent in both languages, and with all the élan of a mechanical doll. The huge cardboard cut-outs of Congress leaders displayed around the stadium had more life about them than she did. The crowd, most of them peasants brought in by lorry from their villages and paid a few rupees for their trouble, began to chatter among themselves. Only when she spoke of Rajiv, of his sacrifice and her sorrow and her duty, did she seem to speak from the heart, and the crowd fell silent and paid attention.

The election was a disaster for Congress, not only because of the lacklustre new leader but because the party itself seemed worn out, disgraced by corruption scandals, too arrogant to discuss sharing power with smaller parties, believing arrogantly that the rule of India was its birthright. The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalists, a party with fascist skeletons stacked in its closet and which only a few years before had been reduced to a handful of seats, stitched together alliances with parties around the country, and suddenly it was in power.

With hindsight we can see now that things started to go wrong for the BJP, and right for Sonia Gandhi, two years ago, in the north-western state of Gujarat. The fire-bombing by Muslims of a train full of BJP activists provoked a ferocious anti-Muslim pogrom in the state, led by Hindu chauvinists and tacitly encouraged by the party's state leaders. Many hundreds of Muslims died hideous deaths, and the ugly sectarian face of the BJP, which it had been careful to conceal during its years in power, was suddenly apparent.

The atrocity galvanised Sonia Gandhi: suddenly, for the first time, she became a real politician, standing up in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, and denouncing the government with real passion, rocking the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, back on his heels.

It was a turning point for Sonia Gandhi and a turning point for India, too. The Hindu chauvinism that underpinned Vajpayee's seductive rhetoric, the giddy talk of India becoming a regional superpower, was suddenly and obscenely on display. Conversely, the innate decency of Congress was on the comeback trail; its consistent claim to represent Indians of every caste and creed was seen again to be not merely attractive but indispensable. And at last Sonia spoke for it - from the heart.

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