December 9, 1947 • Orbassano, Italy
The story should have had a fairy-tale ending: a beautiful young girl meets her handsome Prince Charming, has two children, and lives happily every after. In 1968, however, when Sonia Maino married Rajiv Gandhi of India, the fairy tale was only half realized. She snagged a handsome prince, but she also inherited the troubled history of his country. Rajiv Gandhi was a member of a family that had ruled India since the 1940s. His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister, and his mother, Indira Gandhi, held that office throughout the 1970s. Rajiv himself briefly served as prime minister in the 1980s, but was assassinated in 1991 as he attempted to reclaim the post. Almost a decade after her husband's death, Sonia Gandhi reluctantly followed in her famous family's footsteps by entering politics. In 2004, after serving as president of India's Congress Party, she was called upon by members of Parliament to take up the reins of prime minister. Gandhi shocked the nation, and the world, when she declined. Members of the opposition breathed a sigh of relief, but others feared that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had come to an end.
Love at first sight
Sonia Gandhi was born Sonia Maino on December 9, 1947, in the small village of Orbassano, just outside Turin, Italy. She was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic household, and her parents, Stefano and Paolo, were working class people. Stefano was a building contractor who owned his own medium-sized construction business; Paolo took care of the family's three daughters. When Sonia was eighteen years old, her father sent her to Cambridge, England, to study English. He did not know that his oldest daughter's life was about to change forever.
In 1965, just a year after arriving in England, Sonia met a young Indian student named Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991), who was studying mechanical engineering at Cambridge University. According to Sonia Gandhi, it was love at first sight. The courtship, however, lasted three years, perhaps because Rajiv was from one of the most famous families in India, if not the world. Sonia's parents were reluctant to have her become involved in such a different culture, and Sonia herself was nervous about meeting Rajiv's famous mother, Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), who was considered to be the "first lady" of India. Indira Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), became the country's first prime minister after India claimed its independence from Great Britain in 1947, and Gandhi worked closely with him until his death. In 1965 Indira Gandhi was poised to fill Nehru's shoes.
"Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal."
Sonia's fears were quickly overcome as she and Indira became fast friends. In 1968, Sonia and Rajiv were married in a simple ceremony in New Delhi, India; Sonia wore the same pink sari her mother-in-law had worn at her own wedding many years before. A sari is a traditional dress that consists of several yards of cloth draped around the waist and shoulders. Following the wedding Sonia and Rajiv moved in with Indira Gandhi, who by this time had become prime minister. Sonia's relationship with Indira deepened, and ultimately she became the faithful and obedient daughter-in-law, in charge of running the household. This meant that although Gandhi came into the marriage a modern woman of the West, she soon traded her miniskirts for saris and steeped herself in Indian culture. She even learned to speak Hindi, the official language of India.
Rajiv reluctantly enters politics
While Sonia Gandhi served as hostess at state functions and received visiting dignitaries along with her mother-in-law, Rajiv Gandhi remained relatively removed from politics. After leaving Cambridge, he did not go into engineering; instead he pursued his passion for flying and became a commercial airline pilot for Indian Airlines. The heir to the political throne was expected to be Rajiv's younger brother, Sanjay (1946–1980). As a result, the Gandhis lived in relative peace and quiet, while raising their two children, Rahul and Priyanka, away from the glare of the media.
India's Parliament Explained
India's government is based on the British parliamentary system. The Parliament, or ruling legislative body, is divided into two houses: the upper house, called the Rajya Sabha, consists of a maximum of 250 members; the lower house, known as the Lok Sabha, is composed of no more than 545 members. As in the United States, members of each house are elected to office, and they represent constituents who reside in a particular state. There are fourteen states in India. Legislative elections are held every five years. Following the election, if one party receives a majority of votes, one member is voted in by the party as prime minister. If one party does not achieve a majority of votes, members negotiate with other parties in order to form what is known as a coalition government.
In the meantime, the 1970s became the Indira Gandhi decade in India. The Indian public revered her, calling her Mataji, meaning revered mother. Her political opponents, however, viewed her as a sometimes ruthless leader who seemed determined to form a dictatorship. She even caused dissension within her own political party, the Congress Party (CP). The CP was particularly popular in India, because its early members were major figures in the fight for independence from Great Britain. As a result, the party controlled India's government for most of the twentieth century. In 1969, however, Gandhi split the CP; her splinter group was eventually called the Congress-I Party, the "I" standing for Indira.
By the late 1970s Sanjay had become Gandhi's primary policy adviser, and in 1980 he officially entered politics by winning a seat in Parliament. Before Sanjay had a chance to fulfill his destiny, however, he was killed in a flying accident. A stunned Indira Gandhi begged her older son to join the family's political ranks. Sonia Gandhi was vehemently opposed to the idea, fearing that her husband might be injured or killed, given the explosive nature of Indian politics. After several long discussions, however, the couple jointly agreed that Rajiv should quit his job with the airlines. Although Sonia Gandhi was not pleased, she was a dutiful wife and supported her husband's decision. In 1981 Rajiv ran successfully for Parliament and took over the seat vacated by his brother. He served as the representative from the Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India populated by approximately 160 million inhabitants.
A grieving widow
In 1984 the Gandhi family, and India, was shaken to its very core when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards. Tensions had been escalating for some time between various Indian religious sects, including Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Earlier in the year, Sikh militants had stockpiled weapons in their sacred Golden Temple, assuming that the government would not dare to enter their holy sanctuary. Gandhi, however, sent troops to storm the temple, which resulted in the deaths of many militants. In retaliation, Gandhi's bodyguards, who were Sikhs, shot and killed the prime minister in her own home. Just hours after the shootings, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as his mother's replacement.
Sonia Gandhi, resigned to the fact that her husband must lead his country, became his vigilant supporter and submerged herself in the role of a prime minister's wife. She became an art historian and worked with a team at the National Gallery in New Delhi to restore Indian landscapes. She also collected and edited letters that had been sent between Indira Gandhi and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, which were ultimately published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite Sonia Gandhi's successes, however, her husband Rajiv was a less-than-successful ruler. He was never able to match the popularity of his famous mother, and his administration was plagued by one problem after another, including charges of illegal arms dealings. As a result, in 1989 Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office.
Manmohan Singh: India's Newest Prime Minister
India's newest prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was born into a family of very modest means on September 26, 1932, in Gah, West Punjab (now Pakistan). After earning degrees in economics from Cambridge University in England and from Punjab University, he spent the next thirty years working as a quiet but very key player in Indian politics. In the 1980s Singh served as the head of the Reserve Bank of India, and in 1991 he became the country's finance minister in the Congress Party-led government of Narasimha Rao (1921–), which was in power until 1996.
When he took the post, India was in disastrous financial straits, but during his tenure Singh became the mastermind behind the country's economic reform movement. He opened up the country to outside investors for the first time, and ended regulations that had kept India tied to the past. For example, Singh dissolved the "license Raj," which required private businesses to seek government approval before making almost any decision. By the end of the 1990s, with Singh's help, India was well on its way to economic recovery.
Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that throughout the decades of scandal that rocked the Indian government, Singh retained an incredibly "squeaky clean" reputation. In fact, in 2002 he was awarded the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award. And in May of 2004, when it was announced that he would be taking on the post of prime minister, Singh was given support across the board from representatives of the various Indian parties.
Singh has been married since 1958 and has three daughters. In addition to playing an active role in government, he is also a respected professor of economics and a published author. He is a member of the Sikh faith; when he became prime minister, he became the first Sikh to hold the country's top government position.
In the 1991 elections, Rajiv hit the campaign trail determined to reclaim his family's title. In an uncharacteristic move, security was light. Following his mother's death, Rajiv had taken to wearing a bulletproof vest and had surrounded himself with bodyguards. On this trip, however, his goal was to reconnect with the masses. Unfortunately, the lack of security would prove to be his undoing. On May 22, 1991, while swinging through Tamil Nadu, a key state in south India, he was killed by a young female assassin. The woman was a member of the Tamil Tigers, a band of militants who were fighting for a separate state in northeast Sri Lanka (a country just south of India).
After her husband's assassination, Sonia Gandhi was devastated. She became a virtual recluse for the next six years, spending most of her time with her children and rarely leaving her home. She did break her silence twice. In 1992 Gandhi published a book called Rajiv, which offered an unexpected glimpse into the life she shared with her husband. In 1994 she went into more detail when she published Rajiv's World. She also preserved her husband's legacy by traveling throughout the world and establishing trust funds in his name. Remembering him in such ways provided at least some degree of healing.
Savior of the Congress Party
Throughout her seclusion, representatives from the Congress Party (CP) sent appeal after appeal to Gandhi asking her to be their leader. The CP, once the strongest party in India, had never recovered from Indira Gandhi's death, and by the 1990s it was in serious decline. At the same time, one of the opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was fast gaining ground. Since most of India still revered the Gandhi name, representatives believed that Sonia Gandhi would offer the best hope of infusing new life into their party. Time and again Gandhi refused their offers. In 1997, however, realizing that the CP was in dire need, she agreed to formally join their ranks.
Although she had no political experience, Gandhi threw herself into the 1998 legislative campaign. She made more than 140 stops throughout the country, delivering speeches to packed audiences. And, even though she spoke in a very soft voice and in heavily accented Hindi, she touched the people of India. It may have been partly because she was seen as a grieving widow, or because voters saw her as a reminder of the party's past glory, but the CP was re-energized and Gandhi emerged as a political power in her own right. As one CP representative told CNN in December of 1998, "She gave the party again a nucleus around which it could get united."
Gandhi gained so much popularity that members of opposing parties, especially the BJP, saw her as a very real threat. In an attempt to undermine her credibility, they attacked her verbally and in the press, focusing on a single issue: Gandhi had no right to be involved in politics because, having been born in Italy, she was a foreigner. It did not seem to matter than Gandhi had become an Indian citizen in 1984. Such attacks did little harm, however, since most of the voting public did not consider Gandhi to be an outsider. As one male supporter told CNN in 1998, "Ever since she married Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia has lived in India. She has learned all about India and made herself an Indian. In fact, she is a good example of a good Indian woman."
Although the CP made a good showing in the 1998 elections, gaining twenty-eight seats in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party came out the ultimate winner when it formed a coalition government with seventeen other lesser parties. Therefore, in March of 1998, BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee (1926–) was named prime minister. It was, however, a short-lived victory. Shaky to begin with, Vajpayee's government remained intact only until April of 1999, which meant that elections had to be held again in the fall of the year. In the meantime Gandhi was elected president of the CP, and it seemed possible that another Gandhi would soon be in the country's top position. Once again the question of Gandhi's right to be involved in politics came into play, although this time the outcry came from several top members of her own party. Not wishing to divide the group, Gandhi resigned. The CP refused to accept her resignation, however, and instead fired the members who had dared to oppose her.
When the October elections rolled around, it was still not clear whether Gandhi was the favored CP contender for prime minister. As it turned out, the point was not an issue, since the CP had a poor showing, capturing only 112 seats. The BJP claimed victory, with 182 seats, and Vajpayee once again formed a coalition government. Known as the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP-led government controlled almost three hundred of the 545 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. This time, Vajpayee managed to install a relatively stable coalition, and the BJP would remain in control for the next five years.
Took husband's seat in Parliament
In the same election Gandhi ran for two parliamentary positions, including the seat in Uttar Pradesh which Rajiv Gandhi had once held. Candidates in India are allowed to run for two seats simultaneously; if they win both, they must choose which post to take. Gandhi ultimately won both seats, but chose the district her husband had represented.
Under BJP rule the country seemed to prosper, and by 2004 Vajpayee was claiming credit for turning the economy around. True, big business was booming and India was advancing technologically, but millions of rural Indians living in poverty were not benefiting from BJP reforms. According to statistics reported by CNN in 2004, half of the Indian population was living on less than two dollars a day. However, Vajpayee was so confident that voters were behind him that, although national elections were slated for October of 2004, he called for polls to open six months early.
Gandhi again hit the campaign trail, covering approximately forty thousand miles in the months prior to the elections, and spending long days speaking in sweltering heat that soared over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. For most of her appearances she dressed in a simple white sari, which is the symbol of widowhood in India. She also spoke simply and plainly, and made a direct appeal to the nation's poor. In direct contrast to Vajpayee, who touted big business, Gandhi's campaign, according to Egbert Bhatty of the Washington Dispatch, focused on "unity, tolerance, and love among all men." As they had in 1998, millions of her countrymen embraced the soft-spoken Gandhi, calling her desh ki bahu, our daughter-in-law.
When elections began in April, voters turned out in droves. Almost four hundred million people went to the polls, and after all the ballots were counted in May, there was a surprise upset. The CP, along with its coalition allies, captured 279 seats, a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless, in the Lok Sabha. Since it had won a majority, the CP needed to elect a new prime minister, and the frontrunner seemed to be Sonia Gandhi. Although Gandhi remained tight-lipped about whether or not she wanted the position, political analysts predicted that her victory was assured, and CP members were vocal in their support. Elizabeth Roche of The Age quoted senior official Ambika Soni as saying, "Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the Congress party. We want that our party chief should become the prime minister."
The fairy tale ends?
On Tuesday, May 17, during a meeting of the CP, Gandhi made a declaration that stunned her party, the people of India, and the rest of the world. "I was always certain," she said, "that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. Today, that voice tells me that I must humbly decline this post." Gandhi's supporters pleaded with her to reconsider, but she remained firm in her decision to decline the position. Some claimed that she was bullied into her decision by the BJP opposition, who once again berated Gandhi because of her foreign birth. Others felt that she and her children feared for her safety. But the public Gandhi indicated that she was stepping aside for the good of her party and the good of India.
The day after her announcement, Gandhi nominated longtime friend and government official Manmohan Singh (1932–) to take the reigns as prime minister. On May 19, 2004, his appointment became official. Although Gandhi did not accept the country's top post, she remained at the helm of the CP, and those around her still considered her to be very much in the forefront of Indian politics. As Mani Shankar Aiyar of the CP told Bill Schneider of CNN.com, "She is the queen. She is appointing a regent to run some of the business of government for her. But it is she who will be in charge and who will continue to direct the fortunes of the Congress Party." In addition, after the 2004 elections, it seemed that the Gandhi dynasty would continue at least for another generation, since Sonia and Rajiv's son, Rahul, was successfully elected to the Indian Parliament.
For More Information
Omestad, Thomas. "The Ghandis Return." U.S. News & World Report (May 24, 2004): p. 14.
Walsh, James. "India: Death's Return Visit." Time (June 3, 1991).
Bhatty, Egbert F. "Sonia Gandhi: The Once and Future Prime Minister of India." Washington Dispatch (May 21, 2004). http://www.washingtondispatch.com/printer_9110.shtml (accessed on July 5, 2004).
Bindra, Satinder. "Gandhi Dynasty Poised for Power." CNN.com: World (May 14, 2004). http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/asiapcf/05/14/india.vote1155/index.html (accessed on June 30, 2004).
Gandhi, Sonia. Speech, Congress Parliamentary Party meeting (New Delhi, India, May 17, 2004). rediff.com. http://in.rediff.com/election/2004/may/18sonia2.htm (accessed on July 5, 2004).
Haidar, Suhasini, and Ram Ramgopal. "Singh: Poster Boy of Change." CNN.com: World (May 20, 2004). http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/asiapcf/05/20/india.singh/index.html (accessed on July 5, 2004).
Pratap, Anita. "An Enigmatic Sonia Gandhi Transforms Indian Politics." CNN.com: World (December 12, 1998). http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/asiapcf/9812/12/india.sonia.gandhi/index.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).
"Profile: Sonia Gandhi." BBC News: World Edition (May 14, 2004). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3546851.stm (accessed on June 29, 2004).
Roche, Elizabeth. "Sonia Gandhi Tightens Grip on Presidency." The Age.com (May 15, 2004). http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/05/15/1084570991729.html?from=storylhs&oneclick=true# (accessed on June 30, 2004).
Schneider, Bill. "Gandhi Has Power, but Declines Post." CNN.com: Inside Politics (May 21, 2004). http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/05/21/gandhi/index.html (accessed on July 5, 2004).
Sonia Gandhi (born 1946) is the widow, daughter–in–law and granddaughter–in–law of three Indian prime ministers. As such, it is not surprising that she entered politics as well, becoming the leader of India's Congress Party in 1998. An Italian by birth, Sonia Gandhi became a member of India's most illustrious political family in 1968 when she married Rajiv Gandhi, son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 2004, Sonia Gandhi shocked the nation when she was elected prime minister but turned down the post fearing the question of her nationality would tear apart the nation the Gandhi family had sacrificed so much for.
Married into Gandhi Family
Sonia Gandhi was born Sonia Maino on December 9, 1946, in Ovassanjo, Italy, to Paola and Stefano Maino, a building contractor. Gandhi was raised Roman Catholic alongside her two sisters. In the 1960s, she went to Cambridge, England, to study English. While there, she met Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawarhlal Nehru. Initially, Rajiv Gandhi showed no interest in politics. He was in Cambridge studying mechanical engineering at Trinity College. They married in 1968 and settled down in India. Sonia Gandhi wholeheartedly adopted her husband's homeland. She learned to speak some Hindi and cook Indian food, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1983.
Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi had two children, son Rahul, born around 1971, and daughter Priyanka, born around 1972. Rajiv Gandhi joined the New Delhi flying club, obtained his commercial pilot's license and became a pilot for Indian Airlines. While living in New Delhi during the early part of their marriage, the Gandhis traveled in the upper–class echelon. They wore designer clothes, hosted beef barbecues and enjoyed disco–dancing, which were all activities the Hindu traditionalists condemned.
During this time, Sonia Gandhi developed a close relationship with her mother–in–law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi became a kind of personal assistant to the prime minister and traveled with her as she conducted the country's business. Sonia Gandhi was not, however, fond of the public life politics brought with it. She was relieved her husband had stayed out of politics, letting his brother, Sanjay, carry on the torch of the Gandhi name. However, in 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash, prompting Rajiv Gandhi to enter politics out of a sense of family duty. Sonia Gandhi opposed the move. "I would rather have my children begging in the streets of Delhi than him becoming a politician," she once remarked, according to Hamish McDonald of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Lived Through Two Family Assassinations
In the early 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi won his brother's parliament seat. Once her husband entered politics, Sonia Gandhi began wearing traditional saris and stepped up her role as a traditional Indian wife. Her dislike of politics was heightened in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot in the garden of her New Delhi residence by her own Sikh security guards. Sonia Gandhi was one of the first people on the scene and she cradled the dying prime minister in her lap as they sped to the hospital.
On the eve of his mother's death, Rajiv Gandhi was elevated to the post of prime minister. Sonia Gandhi became exceedingly obsessed with her husband's and children's safety. She appeared in public wearing oversized dark glasses, continually scanning the crowds for would–be assassins. Rajiv Gandhi served as prime minister until 1989, when his party was defeated following a scandal involving kickbacks deposited into Swiss bank accounts as part of a weapons procurement deal. Rajiv Gandhi swore his family played no role in the dirty deal. A few years later, in 1991, as Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning to win back the prime minister's post, he was killed by a suicide–bomber.
Within days of her husband's death, Sonia Gandhi was asked to take his place as leader of the Congress Party. She refused. Supporters gathered in the streets outside her home, urging her to take the position. She continued to decline the position and lived out the next several years in political seclusion. With the deaths of her mother–in–law, brother–in–law and husband, Sonia Gandhi remained the only member of the Nehru–Gandhi clan who could carry on in politics. The Nehru–Gandhi family had, after all, supplied the country with its prime minister for 37 of its first 47 years.
Entered Political Fray
In December 1997, Sonia Gandhi announced her intention to campaign on behalf of the Congress Party, hoping to revive its image and establish its position as a favorable alternative to the right–wing Hindu–nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Gandhi family had represented the Congress Party for years—it was the party the family lived and died for and Sonia Gandhi could not stand to see it falling apart. In her first campaign speech, Sonia Gandhi addressed her change of heart. Her words are found in Paul Dettman's book India Changes Course: "In the years since Rajiv Gandhi left us, I had chosen to remain a private person and live a life away from the political arena. My grief and loss have been deeply personal. But a time has come when I feel compelled to put aside my own inclinations and step forward. The tradition of duty before personal considerations has been the deepest conviction of the family to which I belong."
At first, Sonia Gandhi stumbled. Critics raised the issue of her foreign status—could someone born outside of India really speak for its people? She had always been uncomfortable in the public limelight and newspapers had previously dubbed her the "Sphinx," for her icy demeanor and perpetually somber expression. Eventually, Sonia Gandhi came into her own and became the passionate political star of the Congress Party. Her crowd–pulling ability matched that of her husband and mother–in–law—and once she had a crowd gathered, Sonia Gandhi was able to rally them around the party's causes.
By the spring of 1998, Sonia Gandhi was president of the Congress Party. During campaign speeches, she told crowds the Congress Party would restore the ideal of secularism to government. She lured Muslim voters to the party's ranks. The opposition continued to make her foreignness an issue; however, her foreign–born status did not seem to hurt the party. Sonia Gandhi was such an anomaly that people flocked to see the Italian woman wearing an Indian sari who spoke Hindi with a foreign accent. She drew crowds of more than 200,000 people, boosting the morale of the party's members and injecting enthusiasm into their campaigns as well.
Opposition leaders continued to chide Sonia Gandhi for her foreign–born status. According to the New York Times, Times of India writer Mohit Sen wrote that Indians were actually going against tradition by not welcoming Sonia Gandhi into their ranks. "Those who so perversely and perniciously question Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's Indian nationality on the grounds that she was born an Italian are actually assailing Indian tradition. Part of what is rightly hailed as the exceptional and wise tolerance characterizing our national ethos is the openness to those who came to us from outside as friends, with the desire to become part of us."
Undaunted, Sonia Gandhi continued as a voice for the Congress Party. During the 1998 campaign, she traveled 60,000 kilometers and spoke to 138 constituencies in 34 days. In the 1998 election, the Congress Party only gained one more seat in parliament than it had in 1996, but the election was still considered a success because pollsters had predicted the party would lose seats that year. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won a seat in parliament.
Turned Down Prime Minister's Post
As the 2004 election approached, Sonia Gandhi was still president of the Congress Party and still its most outgoing speaker. Many assumed that if her party won the election, she would become prime minister, though she never campaigned as a candidate. The campaign turned nasty. Once again, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used Sonia Gandhi's birthplace as a point of contention. Sonia Gandhi had been an Indian citizen for 20 years, yet opposition leaders questioned her Indian loyalty. While campaigning, the BJP said that Sonia Gandhi could not consider herself to be an Indian because pasta was her favorite food and her children spoke fluent Italian.
The heated campaign drew 670 million voters to the polls in India, which is the world's largest democracy. The people spoke, handing the Congress Party a surprise victory over the right–wing BJP. Congress Party supporters expected Sonia Gandhi to become the prime minister. Immediately, the grumblings began. As poor losers, the BJP politicians threatened to walk out of parliament if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister. They threatened to boycott her swearing–in ceremony. They also declared that having a foreign–born woman as prime minister would constitute a threat to national security. Looking back at India's history, it is easy to see why some Indians were so upset at the prospect of a "foreigner" becoming their leader. India had, after all, been ruled by foreigners until 1947 when it gained a hard–fought independence from Britain.
Hundreds of millions of voters had chosen her, however, despite her birth status. For them, Sonia Gandhi's steadfast dedication to her adopted country was apparent, as was her genuine concern for the country's poorest. Soon after the 2004 election, Sonia Gandhi stunned supporters by announcing that her "inner voice" had urged her to turn down the post of prime minister. Instead, she nominated former finance minister Manmohan Singh for the post. It is easy to understand why Gandhi turned down the position—she likely feared being assassinated like her husband and mother–in–law. Also, the controversy surrounding her foreign birth would never have gone away and her party would have been stuck dealing with that instead of dealing with the problems of the country.
Crowds gathered outside Sonia Gandhi's residence urging her to change her mind. According to Turna Ray of the National Review, parliament member Mani Shankar Aiyar told Sonia Gandhi: "You cannot betray the people of India. The inner voice of the people of India says that you have to become the prime minister of India."
Later, opposition leaders charged that Sonia Gandhi was still calling the shots, even though she was not prime minister. Maneka Gandhi, widow of Sanjay Gandhi and a parliament member of the opposition BJP, said she believed Sonia Gandhi outsmarted her opponents when she stepped down. "I think she's the power in front of the throne," Maneka Gandhi told Los Angeles Times writer Paul Watson. "I don't think she makes any bones about the fact that she has avoided the flak that would have gone with the position, but she has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing any of the power of the position."
Others believe Sonia Gandhi is trying to hold the door open for her son, Rahul Gandhi, to become prime minister. As of 2004, he was representing Amethi, India, in parliament—the same seat his father, mother and uncle once held. Though she turned down the post of prime minister, Sonia Gandhi remained president of the Congress Party. As such, it is likely she will groom her son, Rahul Gandhi, to become prime minister, thus continuing the Gandhi family's dynastic dreams.
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GANDHI, SONIA (1946–), Congress Party leader, widow of Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, entered politics in 1998 after being persuaded by the Congress Party to lead the organization during that year's general elections. She was elected to Parliament in 1999 from Jawaharlal Nehru's Rai Bareilly constituency, adjacent to Rajiv Gandhi's rural constituency in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi's son, Harvard-educated Rahul Gandhi, now holds this Parliamentary seat. The Congress Party lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led coalition in the 1998 elections, and then again in 1999, following the collapse of the BJP coalition in a successful vote of no-confidence. In the April 2004 general elections, riding on the Gandhi name and visibility, she led the Congress Party and its allies back into office. Her victory generated strong passions among extreme Hindu nationalists because of her foreign origins and Christian faith. Concerns about causing deep political divisions in India, and fears of assassination, as in the cases of her husband and her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, prompted her not to assume the office of prime minister.
Sonia Maino Gandhi was born in 1946 in the small Italian town of Orbassano, near Turin. Her father was a building contractor, and she was raised as a traditional Roman Catholic. She met Rajiv Gandhi in England, where she had gone to study English at a school in Cambridgeshire, while he was studying engineering at Cambridge University. Sonia and Rajiv were married in 1968. They returned to New Delhi and moved into the residence of Rajiv's mother, Indira Gandhi, who was then prime minister of India. Thereafter, she adapted to the Indian way of life to become part of the Nehru-Gandhi political family, learning Hindi, wearing saris, and adjusting to Indian culture and cuisine. Their daughter, Priyanka, was born in 1970, and their son, Rahul, in 1972.
Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the office of prime minister following her successful 2004 election campaign, wisely remaining president of the Congress Party. She chose the former finance minister under the earlier Congress government, Dr. Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist, to assume the position of prime minister. He became India's first Sikh prime minister. Sonia Gandhi remained the political power behind the prime minister shaping key Congress government policies.
Raju G. C. Thomas
Gandhi, Sonia. Two Alone. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2004.
Rupa, Chatterjee. Sonia Mystique. New Delhi: Virgo Publications, 2000.
Sanghvi, Vijay. Congress Resurgence under Sonia Gandhi. New Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2004.