The simple heroism of Sonia Gandhi

It is better to go into the shadows a goddess than to die in the hands of a madman or take on a role and fail abysmally
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On Tuesday evening, just as news broke that Sonia Gandhi had decided to decline one of the most powerful jobs in the world, I was debating heroism at an event chaired by Eric Pooley, the editor of Time Europe. The other panellists were all men - the bright, young historian Tristram Hunt, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins (who told his troops in Iraq to behave magnanimously after victory), and Andrew Roberts who writes establishment-friendly historical books which would please Winston Churchill.

The discussion was fascinating, wide ranging, sometimes heated, and at one point in danger of turning into a blokeish fest on military feats and prowess. But the women at the debate didn't let that happen, thank God. We thought Mrs Gandhi was pretty heroic. I suggested that heroism sometimes meant walking away from the spotlight, which in politics is all too rare.

Mrs Gandhi had listened to an inner voice, she said, as her supporters wept and begged, slit their wrists, and even threatened mass suicide. It may have been a brilliantly calculated political manoeuvre to deflate her enemies. They are bloated with visceral hatred for this woman, not for what she has done (in truth she has not done much that will go down in history, yet) but for her marriage, the sins of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, and most of all for being "foreign born". The dynamic American-born Barbara Cassani, who got London shortlisted for the Olympic games in 2012, also stepped aside this week apparently because she too was made to feel that her foreign-born status would be an obstacle.

I was in India during the last weeks of the election campaign and it was revolting to witness the racism of prominent members of the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, commentators in the media and even intellectuals. Many of them had unabashedly thrown themselves behind this fundamentalist party which was determined to push ahead with policies to privilege Hinduism and Brahmins.

At the Nehru Centre in Mumbai, I met members of the intelligentsia who were themselves divided. The wise among them abhorred the new zealotry that is convincing some that their India has to be reclaimed for "pure" Indians. I asked the "patriots" whether the same rule should apply to the UK, Canada and the US where so many expatriate Indians now reside. "No, no," said their chief jingoist: "That, madam, would not be acceptable, it would not be right."

Yet it was fine that Mrs Gandhi should be rejected. How her opponents bayed and howled. One BJP party politician called her a "jersey cow" and her children "half breeds". ("Cow" on its own would have been a compliment I suppose because these creatures are worshipped). Back in 2000, the South Asian Voice carried hysterical denunciations of Mrs Gandhi. She had reservations about the development of nuclear weapons; she was close to someone who believed both India and Pakistan are to blame for the problems in Kashmir; she could not be expected to fight the unjust trade policies of the G7 countries because Italy was a member and she, remember, is Italian; she would expect, like royalty, to inherit power.

That these personal campaigns failed to derail Mrs Gandhi is astonishing. For the people who voted for her, she is one of their own. Her reticent demeanour, simple saris, covered hair, Indian English and ferocious commit- ment to her children make her more Indian to them than all those modern misses in the cities dressed in jeans or cavorting half naked. Since Rajiv was murdered in 1991, she has become the symbolic Indian widow. Some call her the nation's "bahu", perfect, honourable daughter-in-law, who keeps alive the memory of her husband. Feminists may throw up at this iconography, but for the masses these values still matter enormously and Mrs Gandhi knew just how to play to this credo.

It isn't all spin. Mrs Gandhi is naturally modest and has had experiences many Indian women can relate to. Living with her overpowering mother-in-law can't have been easy. Sanjay, her younger brother-in-law was spoilt rotten and once threw a plate of eggs at her because she hadn't cooked them the way he wanted. Later, his wife Maneka, also wilful, brought more trouble. But when Sanjay died, Mrs Gandhitook care of his baby. Maneka and her son are both with the BJP now. Mrs Gandhi even asked for clemency for one of the women responsible for the assassination of her husband. Her death sentence was commuted.

Maybe she realises it is better to go into the shadows a goddess than die at the hands of a madman or take on a role only to fail abysmally.

Mrs Gandhi has not previously held to the idea of dynastic political entitlement. According to Tariq Ali who has written extensively (and honestly) about the Nehru dynasty, she begged her husband not to go into politics saying she would rather her children begged on the streets. But fate thrust him into the role after the favoured son died in an air crash.

The reluctance she has just displayed to take her turn in leadership may prove a masterstroke in the making of Mrs Gandhi over the next five years. In the background as the perfect, mythical woman, she will compensate for the dry, economic libertarian, Dr Manmohan Singh, who will be sworn in as Prime Minister.

Which is good news on several counts. Secularism is safe for a while. The BJP has been stopped, for now, from destroying the soul of India. Democracy has shown itself alive and kicking. The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, which was in the process of being torn down will, possibly, once more find a proper place in the national memory. Young people, mostly enthusiasts of liberal market economics, are today shockingly dismissive of these freedom fighters and their commitment to a managed, redistributive economy. Both these leaders may be criticised of course, but it was the total lack of respect which I found unacceptable.

There are huge problems on the way. The Congress Party had become corrupt and arrogant when it lost power. The small parties on which this next government will depend do not embrace the current surrender to big business and multinationals and foreign governments which has brought Indian middle classes much wealth and has made the poor poorer. The Hindu nationalist fever will only get worse now their politicians have lost power and the western governments which had grown to admire the BJP will find this new coalition more difficult. The markets have already started panicking and destabilising the economy. The rapprochement with Pakistan - the one good thing initiated by the previous administration for pragmatic reasons - will need the kind of diplomatic skills that neither the incoming Prime Minister nor Mrs Gandhi possess.

From the first moment she met her, Indira took to Sonia, writes Katherine Frank in her biography of Indira Gandhi, because "Sonia seemed to be docile, accommodating and quietly affectionate". The Indian nation has taken to her for the same reason. But this quiet woman has become tough and decisive. She understands the real dangers of civil strife if she were PM. Whatever the future holds Sonia Gandhi, an Italian, has managed to turn the course of history in India by being decent and practical and honest with herself and the country she loves.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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