In Zareer Masani’s recent memoir of his parents, And All is Said, he quotes a letter written to him by his mother in 1968. “Yesterday we went to Mrs Pandit’s reception for Rajiv Gandhi and his wife,” wrote Shakuntala Masani, adding, “I can’t tell you how dim she is, and she comes from a working-class family. I really don’t know what he saw in her.”
And All is Said was widely reviewed when it was published, but no reviewer seems to have picked up on this comment. Shakuntala Masani was the daughter of Sir J.P. Srivastava, once one of the most influential men in India, an industrialist with wide business interests and a member of the viceroy’s executive council besides. Shakuntala’s husband, Minoo Masani, was a well-educated Parsi from a family of successful professionals, who was himself a leading politician and writer. By upbringing and marriage Shakuntala Masani was a paid-up member of the Indian elite. Hence the condescending remarks about the working-class Italian whom Rajiv Gandhi had chosen as his wife.
The object of Mrs Masani’s contempt has, for some time now, been the most powerful person in India. How did she achieve that power, and what has she done with it? Sonia Gandhi’s rise in politics has been at least as unlikely as Barack Obama’s. Moving to Cambridge to learn English (but not at the university), she met and fell in love with Rajiv Gandhi. He brought her to India, where she lived a life of quiet domesticity, bringing up her children and attending to her husband. Through the turmoil of the 1970s, through the Emergency and its aftermath, Rajiv Gandhi stayed well out of politics. His stated ambition, at this stage, was to be promoted from flying Avros between Delhi and Lucknow to piloting Boeings on the more prestigious Delhi-Bombay run.
Indira Gandhi’s political heir was her second son, Sanjay. In 1980, Sanjay died in a flying accident, and the mother pressed Rajiv to take his place. He was reluctant, his wife even more so. Sonia did not want Rajiv to join politics, and begged him not to take office as prime minister when his mother was assassinated in 1984. When he yielded to the clamour of his party colleagues, however, Sonia assumed the decorous, and decorative, role of a prime minister’s wife.
When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the Congress asked his widow to lead the party. She declined, and went into seclusion. Politics had cost her beloved husband his life; she would have none of it. But after the Congress lost power in 1996, the chamchas began pleading with her once more. In 1998, she finally agreed to take charge as Congress president.
When Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, the Socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia, dismissed her as a gungi goodiya, a dumb doll. Sonia Gandhi was likewise taken less than seriously by her political opponents — who, like Shakuntala Masani, thought her dim and uneducated, a woman of no substance. Like her mother-in-law, Sonia rose to the challenge. She travelled around the country, putting life in the state units of the Congress. By her energy and determination, she was able to bring her party to power in many states, and, in 2004, at the Centre.
Sonia Gandhi’s achievement in rescuing the Congress from what appeared to be terminal decline was proof of her political skills, and of her personal courage. She had faced a barrage of abuse from her opponents, who — in a desperate appeal to the baser, xenophobic instincts of her fellow Indians — claimed that if the Congress was voted to power she would bring in ‘Rome Raj’.
The Congress has now been in power for eight years. The Hindu right continues to target Sonia Gandhi as a foreigner. Her Italian birth is, to them, the prime reason why the United Progressive Alliance government is illegitimate. There is a curious organization called the World Association of Hindu Scholars, composed largely of NRI and OCI academics who make sneering remarks about Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins while simultaneously boasting about the Western degrees they have and the Western institutions they are affiliated with. A more weighty individual who persistently rakes up Mrs Gandhi’s Italian and Catholic origins is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. When the Central government announced that it would open up the retail trade to foreign investment, Modi asked the prime minister how many Italian businessmen he intended to please, how many Indian jobs he intended to give away to Italians. These were contemptible remarks, not least because there are other (and weightier) reservations that one may have about the coming in of Walmart into India.
I have never met Sonia Gandhi. But I have little doubt of her patriotism. The evidence suggests that she has accepted this country completely. The problem with Sonia Gandhi’s politics is not her foreign birth, but her worship of her Indian family. She venerates Indira Gandhi, and is fanatically devoted to the memory of Rajiv Gandhi. Her politics and policies are determined chiefly by these sentiments, to the detriment of good governance and of the long-term future of the Congress itself.
Love of one’s kin — that very Indian trait — has also persuaded Sonia Gandhi that her son, Rahul, is destined to become prime minister. When the first UPA government assumed office in 2004, the allies, recognizing that the electorate was now mostly composed of people under thirty, gave the cabinet posts alloted to them to younger leaders such as Ambumani Ramadoss and Dayanidhi Maran. The Congress, on the other hand, placed septuagenarians like Arjun Singh and Shivraj Patil in key portfolios.
Towards the end of the UPA’s first term, a few young Congress leaders were made ministers of state. They have continued in these junior positions for the past four years. It is overwhelmingly likely that this is because Sonia Gandhi fears that if any one of them was made cabinet minister, and performed well in that position, this would reflect badly on her son. Since Rahul Gandhi is not yet ready to become a cabinet minister, no other young Congressman can become a cabinet minister either.
Then there is Sonia Gandhi’s deep devotion to the memory of her dead husband. Congress leaders wishing to ingratiate themselves with their leader know that the best way is to issue a stream of expensive advertisements on Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday, name schemes after him, and invite Sonia Gandhi to inaugurate them.
It is at the inauguration of new bridges, airports and the like that Sonia Gandhi’s political style becomes most apparent. Under this regime, these projects are often named after Rajiv Gandhi. Even if they are not, Sonia Gandhi will attribute the credit to him. The engineers who built the bridge or airport are never named and rarely thanked; rather, we are told that the bridge or airport is the fulfilment of Rajivji’s technology-driven vision for India. I cannot recall whether Sonia Gandhi has ever attended a successful satellite launch organized by Isro; but if she were to do so, doubtless there too the nation will be told that it all happened because of Rajiv Gandhi.
This obsession has wounded the pride and self-respect of the ordinary Indians who design and execute such projects. And it has cost her party dearly too. Thus the Congress campaign for the Gujarat elections began with promise to women voters that they would get loans for houses if their party won. The scheme was named for Rajiv Gandhi; whereas a smarter (as well as more honourable move) would have been to name it after Vallabhbhai Patel, a great Gujarati who was also a lifelong Congressmen.
Not her alleged lack of intelligence, nor her alleged lack of patriotism, but her excessive and often unreasoning devotion to her family is Sonia Gandhi’s great flaw. She cannot allow that there may be Congressmen under fifty who are more capable and more intelligent than her son; or that any political leader other than Rajiv or Indira Gandhi ever did anything worthwhile for the nation.