Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament. She was born Sonia Maino in 1946 near Turin, Italy, to a working-class family, and spent her childhood in that region. Her connection with India developed when she met Rajiv Gandhi, the elder son of Indira Gandhi, at a language school in Cambridge, England. They were married in 1968, and Sonia settled in India with her husband. Rajiv worked as a pilot in Indian Airlines, and only his brother Sanjay’s death in 1980, in a plane crash, changed the course of his life. He entered into politics, apparently with immense reluctance, a decision that is said to have made Sonia exceedingly unhappy: she is on record as having said, “For the first time, there was tension between Rajiv and me. I fought like a tigress — for him, for us and our children, above all, for our freedom.” Sonia Gandhi was seldom seen in public, and led a very “private life”; indeed, the 1984 assassination of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, did comparatively little to make her more visible. Some people thought that, in emulation of some supposed timeless Indian tradition, Sonia Gandhi preferred to remain by the sidelines, content in her roles as wife, mother, and — to some degree — official hostess. Her aversion to politics has been described by Tariq Ali, who recounts that Sonia is said to have stated that she would have rather seen her children beg than enter into the maelstrom of Indian political life.
However, the assassination of her husband in 1991 paved the way for Sonia’s entry into public limelight, and senior members of the Congress party, alarmed at the party’s declining popularity, sought to revive their fortunes by encouraging her to take an active part in politics. They might have thought that, once the Congress had been restored to popularity, Sonia could be marginalized. She resisted membership in the Congress, indeed the offer of the presidency of the party for several years, but eventually joined the Congress party in 1997. She became party president in 1998, thereby becoming the fifth member of the Nehru clan — following Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi — to hold this important post. The following year, in the general election, she was finally elected to a seat in the Lok Sabha, though the Congress suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls. While she was praised for having saved the Congress party from utter extinction, at the same time the party’s continuing misfortunes through the end of 2001 were secretly, and sometimes openly, attributed to Sonia; but if she was construed as a liability, the pathetic state of the Congress party, a previous incarnation of which was the mainstay of the Indian independence movement, can be adequately judged from the fact that the Congress party’s other leaders most likely thought that without her they would be condemned to complete oblivion.
Sonia Gandhi was strident in her criticism of the slow investigation of the inquiry around her husband’s assassination, and made no secret of her opinion that her husband’s opponents and other ill-wishers were determined to keep the truth from the public. It has been argued, not without reason, that her own entry into politics might have been motivated partly by the desire to keep allegations of widespread corruption in the last few years of Rajiv’s prime ministership from becoming proven public facts. In the event, numerous other controversies have dogged her entry into Indian politics. Her opponents in the BJP and other Hindutva organizations, in particular, pointed to her foreign origins, and pressed forth the unsavory suggestion that a country willing to be ruled by a “foreigner”, that too a woman, was evidently wanting in its masculinity and pride. Sonia acquired Indian citizenship in 1983, and questions have been raised why she took “so long” to acquire Indian citizenship. Since the Indian constitution, moreover, does not preclude people who have acquired citizenship by naturalization from holding the highest offices in the land, Sonia’s entry into politics became the pretext for offering the suggestion that a constitutional amendment would be required.
In these controversies, as they are described, Sonia Gandhi’s opponents have looked exceedingly foolish and nationalistic. It is scarcely surprising that Hindu nationalists should look to the United States, which forbids its presidency to anyone not born in the country, as the example that India should emulate. One would have thought that, in this matter as in most others, the United States sets the standard not for freedom or liberality of interpretation but for jingoism and provincialism. If loyalty is in question, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 is unequivocally clear: it does not allow foreigners to acquire Indian citizenship unless they have renounced their other allegiance. Of course, if the advocates of Hindutva are inclined to see adherents of Islam, who have been in India for over 1,000 years, as “foreigners”, one should not be surprised that the same predictable and pedestrian argument should have been deployed against Sonia Gandhi. These advocates of Hindutva have invested less in India than did someone such as Annie Beasant, an Irish woman settled in India who was an ardent advocate of Indian self-rule. Had Sonia Gandhi’s opponents riveted on the fact that she has brought no distinct ideas, no imagination, indeed not an iota of new energy into Indian politics, they might have been more effective and less nauseating. To say this is not to gainsay the fact that as a politician, Sonia has learned the tools of the trade, and her decision in late 2002, to not host, on account of the “suffering caused to the people in several drought-affected states and in riot-hit Gujarat”, the traditional part iftar party held as a mark of communal amity and friendship with Muslims during the month-long Ramzan, must be deemed at least in part as the gesture of a pragmatic politics. Whatever Sonia Gandhi’s eventual political fortunes, her own political presence is not calculated to breathe fresh life into Indian politics, though it may well be the training ground for the next generation of Nehrus.