The 22-year-old Sonia Maino left her home in Piedmont, Italy in 1968 to marry into crème de la crème cult of Indian Politics: the Gandhi-Nehru Family, when she tied the knot with Rajiv Gandhi, the younger son of the then Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. In a compendium of photos taken by Rajiv Gandhi, titled Rajiv’s World which was published in 1994, Sonia Gandhi reminisces her absolute lack of knowledge about Rajiv’s background during their initial years when she had no idea about Rajiv’s blue-blooded ancestry, which comprised of a whole string of prodigious visionaries and nation builders extraordinaire and about the amount of political capital her future husband’s family amassed in the a country of 530 million people.
During her early years in India, Sonia shunned politics while being an integral part of a political household. She was ultimately forced into the limelight by a series of deaths in the family during the 1980s. She got acquainted with the public after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 when her husband became the Prime Minister. As she started to settle in her new found role as the First Lady of the country, she became the target of shaming and slandering by the opposition for being a foreigner, a handicap which never disappeared from the political radar. Her overseas descent became an easily bankable political currency for the opposition and she had to endure catcalls like Videshi biwi, videshi paisa (“Foreign Wife, Foreign Funds”) and face comparisons with Monica Lewinsky, which painted her as an agent of foreign interests.
With her life already being a story concocted by amalgamating a series of highly theatrical sitcom plot-endings, her world was completely eroded and jolted when in 1991, Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber while he was campaigning in a town near Madras as revenge for his intervention in Sri Lanka, which had pitted Indian troops against the rebel Tamil Tigers. Bereaved and grief stricken, she feared for the safety of her children and the country thus started speculating this as the end of Sonia’s life in India. After this horrible scheme of events, Sonia turned to recluse for seven long years as India’s Grand Old Party struggled to find its way in the political wilderness.
Buoyed by the Gandhi loyalists, Sonia officially joined the Indian National Congress in 1997 to salvage her family’s political inheritance and the heritage of India’s oldest political party. Skillfully riding the wave of loyal congress cadres, she was elected the President of the INC in March 1998.
She has come a long way since then. From her initial casting in the role of the tragic widow, she led the party out of the chaotic doldrums and proved herself as the reluctant champion of India’s secular heritage. She enjoys the distinction of being the longest serving president of the 132-year-old Congress and for leading it to two consecutive victories in the general elections of 2004 and 2009. Taking over the party’s presidency when it was clearly leaderless and adrift, she beat the odds and proved her critics wrong. She projected herself as an heir to her late mother-in-law’s legacy by mirroring her attires and ways of campaigning. She has championed socialist causes throughout her political career and also restructured and rebranded the Congress so as to revive its original pluralist values thereby effectively resisting the trend of religious populism that has gained ground in recent decades. Over the years, she has continuously tried to assimilate into the Indian Society, from switching to sarees to doing away with her accented hindi, Sonia had to be quarantined for Mrs Gandhi to emerge.
On the other hand, her rising to power is an explicit manifestation of the immense bandwidth of India’s tolerance and secularism: a Roman Catholic woman who was born in a Cimbrian-speaking village of Lusiana near Vicenza in Veneto, Italy, spearheaded the country’s majority party for over 19 years.
Due to her deteriorating health, Mrs Gandhi passed the baton to her son Rahul Gandhi on December 16, thus bringing an end to her nineteen-year-old long term at the helm of the Congress Party. Rahul Gandhi is taking over at a time when the party finds itself in a severe political crisis, a crisis which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one which the party faced when Sonia took over in 1998. In a way, it all comes full circle. While Mrs Gandhi might be leaving the stage, her relationship with the party and its workers isn’t solely mechanical but extends into something more emotional and spiritual. Under her reign, the party has touched both the zenith and the nadir, making her a maternal figure to the organization and thus she will continue to play an active part in the mind of the people.
Following fractured mandates and the advance of its nemesis, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past three years, the party is more divided than ever before and trying to make sense of the jigsaw puzzle that is the current political scenario. With Modi normalizing Hindu nationalism marinated in a thick sauce of extremism, the future doesn’t seem to look good for India’s first family and its pluralist legacy. As the transition of power occurs in India’s premiere party, the whole world is watching. Sonia Gandhi has done her part and can draw satisfaction from the fact that she has finally succeeded in installing the Nehru-Gandhi scion as the Congress chief. But will her son be able to revive the prestige of the Indian National Congress from the shackles and portray the party as an effective opposition to the ascending Hindu hegemony while simultaneously presenting itself as an alternative to the unipolar overreach by the current government? Only time will tell.