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Sonia Gandhi -

Jagat - Sun, 16 May 2004 17:01:23 +0530
From a small town in Tuscany to leader of 1bn Indians: Gandhi dynasty rises again

Rajiv's Italian-born widow poised for power after poll shock

Randeep Ramesh in Delhi -- Friday May 14, 2004 -- The Guardian

Sonia Gandhi's rise from small-town, postwar Italy to the whitewashed British Raj bungalows of Delhi is a story of love and death in India's political cauldron, culminating in the most sensational victory since India became independent in 1947.

Yesterday Mrs Gandhi, née Maino, the daughter of a Tuscan building contractor, was on the brink of becoming India's prime minister after defeating the most potent political force in the country's recent history: Hindu nationalism.

In a dramatic and unexpected result which will have deep implications for the world's largest democracy, Mrs Gandhi's Congress party swept the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) from power. Her shock victory was put down to her ability to woo India's millions of rural poor.

For Sonia, it is in the small town of Orbassano, seven miles from Italy's busy metropolis of Turin, that her extraordinary political journey begins. It was here in the Tuscan countryside that she was born in 1946, her father, Stephano, doting on his "little princess" and providing his three daughters with a strict Catholic education.

Her mother and two sisters still live in Orbassano, in a terracotta-coloured two-storey house on the outskirts of town.

At first glance there is little to link this sleepy part of northern Italy to the corridors of power in India. Residents of Orbassano told India's Outlook magazine recently they could barely remember the young woman whom most describe as a "hard working, intelligent girl" with a "very good singing voice".

But in a small way the Gandhi family, which produced three Indian prime ministers and looks set in Sonia Gandhi to have another, has left its mark in rural Italy. The road leading east out of Orbassano is called Via Rajiv Gandhi, after Sonia's late husband and the last member of the world's most successful political dynasty to be Indian prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi is the most improbable of political leaders in modern day India. She became an Indian citizen in 1983, 15 years after she married Rajiv at the age of 21.

The two met at Cambridge, where she was studying English and Rajiv was trying, and ultimately failing, to get an engineering degree.

Arriving in India in 1968, the young Mrs Gandhi struggled to cope with the country's deeply ingrained culture. At first, she did not like Indian food or clothes and there was a minor uproar when she was pictured in a miniskirt sucking on a lolly.

Like the Kennedys in America, the Gandhis are India's first family of politics, whose rise has been marred by tragedy. As a daughter-in-law in the Gandhi clan, Sonia had a ringside view of history. The sight was bloody and terrible.

Her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Her husband, Rajiv, whom she had implored not to enter politics, was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991.

After her husband's death, Mrs Gandhi quietly departed from public life. But she was wooed back by a floundering Congress party in 1997 and agreed to campaign, hoping that the Gandhi name would cast a spell over the electorate.

Her start in Indian politics was difficult. Despite being a talented linguist who can converse in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian, her Hindi could be at best described as colloquial. Dressed in saris, she read short speeches with the Hindi words typed out in Roman script rather than the curls and lines of the Indian language's alphabet.

Sonia also struggled to cope with the intrigue and betrayal that marks India politics. She became aloof and distant, rarely granting interviews. But still the adoring crowds, who considered her a brave widow, turned out in huge numbers.

There were political miscalculations, most notably when she claimed after the 1999 elections to have a majority in parliament without checking an ally would lend its support. The BJP went on to form the government which yesterday Mrs Gandhi toppled.

The reason for her success appears to be a combination of hard work and her name. Now fluent in Hindi, she can attract the masses and speak to them in a language they understand.

While her grasp of policy issues appears at times shaky, she has shaped a winning strategy for the Congress party, which has been out of office for nearly a decade. At a press conference last night she was at ease parrying questions from reporters, telling them that peace with Pakistan was an idea her rivals had appropriated.

It was also her idea to target rural India, which remains chained to poverty and has been left behind as the urban centres modernise. A series of barnstorming speeches by the Congress president drew the crowds. Her message that India did not shine outside of its conurbations was successful because it was true.

Mrs Gandhi defused the "foreign origins" issue which plagued her earlier attempts to become prime minister. Hindu nationalists cast her as an agent of Rome while they offered Ram, a warrior god who has come to symbolise Hinduism. She defiantly told New Delhi TV earlier this year: "I never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I am not. I am Indian."

By bringing into politics her son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, she also added glamour to the hustings and sent a strong message that the Gandhi dynasty was here to stay. She also made it clear that Hindus, who make up 80% of India's 1 billion people, had nothing to fear from a Congress party which drew support from minority religions.

Asked by an interviewer during campaigning what principles she draws upon in making moral decisions in family life and politics, she replied: "I suppose these Catholic values are at the back of my mind.

"I feel very strongly about India being a secular state. By secular state I mean one that will encompass all religions. The present government doesn't stand for that."