A Hagiography of the First Family
This account by Rani Singh is a hagiography of Sonia Gandhi. The author makes it clear right at the start that she does not intend it to be a definitive political critique of Sonia Gandhi but “to tell the story…using research and interviews with those who know or have known her” which turns out to be a euphemism for largely unadulterated praise of the Congress’ first family.
I suppose many readers are already familiar with many details of her life. Many details that Subramanyam Swamy provides on the Janata Party website are covered but the narrative is (naturally) more innocuous, shorn of conspiratorial claims. Mrs.Gandhi was born as Antonia Albina Maino at Lusiana, a small town of less than 3,000 in northeast Italy. Sonia was the pet name given her by her father, a man considerably influenced by Russia where he spent time as a prisoner of war following capture during World War II. They moved to Orbassano when she was around nine which is where their family home remains to this day. She was educated at the Salesian boarding school and later moved to the Lennox Cook School at Cambridge to learn English which was considered important for the job market. Homesickness and non-availability of Italian food forced her to dine at a Greek restaurant on a regular basis which is where she met Rajiv. The two were just another regular active and outgoing couple with Rajiv working odd jobs and not being particularly interested in his studies. She was very pretty, aware of her beauty and also, on occasion, showed a fiery Italian temper. Her father, skeptical of the seriousness of the relationship, did not approve of her marriage to a foreigner and her settling down in a foreign country; he insisted that the couple wait a year and if they still wanted to go ahead, they were free to do so. She agreed, remained resolute and a year later, came to India and stayed with the Bachchans which is when she began to learn Hindi. Following the wedding, she moved into the Indira Gandhi household, was accomodating and settled down quickly without any major problems. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage but subsequently gave birth to her present two children, Rahul and Priyanka. Sanjay married Maneka who entered the family in 1974.
A brief description of the emergency from the family’s perspective is given. Sonia and Rajiv were “uncomfortably caught up” in the events of the Emergency. While Indira imposed the emergency, Sanjay was responsible for its greatest abuses. Inder Malhotra is quoted as saying that Rajiv was unhappy and always anxious to distance himself from his brother’s actions. The alternative story line comes from Najma Heptullah that Sanjay’s programs were good but implementation was bad. Indira called for polls because she was a “democrat at heart” and despite knowing that she would lose.
The next few years in the opposition were difficult. The family moved to 12 Willingdon Crescent, the residence of Mohammed Yunus. The place was smaller in size and therefore, cramped and overcrowded with all their belongings. “Politically motivated” investigations were launched to harass them. Indira’s clever political maneuvers outsmarted the opposition and returned her and a much chastised Sanjay to power in 1980.
Details of the incident leading to Sanjay’s death in the plane crash are explained in some detail. Rajiv reluctantly entered politics at this time which is when Sonia began to take a semi-active part in political life, particularly in nursing Rajiv’s constituency, Amethi. Sonia had forged a close bond with Indira and the two were in France together as guests of President Mitterand staying at the Elysee palace. Limited details of her conflict with Maneka are also provided, particularly the events leading to her final departure from the house taking Varun with her, a move that greatly upset Indira who was seen as one of her blood (interestingly, Varun later on attended Priyanka’s wedding). Indira’s assasination and Rajiv’s assumption of office are discussed in some detail.
Thereafter, Sonia resumed work at the National Museum editing two volumes of letters between Indira and Jawaharlal which was later also published in a more concise one volume format. She made visits to the countryside and also met a number of foreign dignitaries in her role as the Prime Minister’s wife. As expected, a detailed description of Rajiv’s assasination finds place. The establishment of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation with her as its chairperson, her gradually enlarging role in that capacity and its activities and achievements are explained. This, we learn, helped her prepare for her subsequent position as the President of the Congress Party. The remainder of the book include her years in the opposition, victories in 2004 and 2009, refusal to become the Prime Minister, setting up of the NAC, flagship schemes and laws enacted by the UPA, commutation of Nalini’s death penalty and Priyanka’s visit to her in Jail as well as Rahul’s rise – all too well known to be recounted here.
The entire book is one long, tedious and uninterrupted paean to the Gandhi family which was quite disappointing. The author was candid enough to admit in an interview on CNN-IBN that this was meant more for the Western rather than the Indian audience. If so, I would have expected a greater degree of scholarly detachment and analysis which are altogether missing. In numerous places, she merely regurgitates every praise sung about her subjects. Wajahat Habibullah, Dilip Padgaonkar, Inder Malhotra, Tarun Tejpal, Natwar Singh and Maneka are frequently cited. Barring a stray sentence from Maneka attacking the UPA’s policies and Smita Gupta’s mild suspicion about Sonia’s lack of knowledge, virtually no criticism of any sort can be found. Whether this is owing to the author’s political leanings, price of access, the publisher’s fear of a hostile reception in India or for some other reason, the sanitization is indeed impressive. The only question left in the reader’s mind at the end of it is why this book is lacking an official stamp of endorsement of the Indian National Congress.