Sonia Gandhi Biography
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.
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).