The Gandhi from Orbassano

Published: November 17, 2011 - 12:00 Updated: February 23, 2012 - 15:59

Despite its hagiographical tenor, this biography of Sonia Gandhi illumines parts of her life that have long remained in the shadows

BOOK Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny
AUTHOR: Rani Singh
(foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev)

Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR 2011

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

It is not easy to write on Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Not only is she secretive, but it is also generally difficult to get people close to her to speak. This shroud of secrecy has been in evidence during her recent visit abroad for treatment. No one has a clear idea about the seriousness of her problem and what the eight-hour-long medical procedure was all about. There was not even any official confirmation of where she went for her treatment.

Much of this obsession with secrecy may be due to security reasons, but Sonia has always been an enigma for the media. Married into India's most powerful family, she has managed to avoid media scrutiny even after taking over as Congress president. Many complain that no one really asks her tough questions. Some of her TV interviews have been so friendly that no one gets a sense of her positions on key national and international issues.

Given this context, despite its hagiographical tenor, London-based journalist Rani Singh's biography of Sonia Gandhi illumines parts of her life that have long remained in the shadows. Singh has painstakingly retraced her long journey from being a young girl in Orbassano, a small town in Italy, to her tragic widowhood, followed by her remarkable
political resurrection as the woman who rules India.

There are some major gaps in Singh's storytelling. Clearly, not many people who matter spoke with her and, perhaps, she had to make do with journalists and former bureaucrats. It is about Sonia's early years that the author manages to fill some gaps with interesting details by speaking with many friends, teachers and others who claim to have known her when she was growing up. These gaps – especially her stay in Cambridge and how her path intersected with Rajiv Gandhi's when he was doing his Tripos there – have been providing fodder to conspiracy theorists.

Indeed, hating Sonia Gandhi is an industry in India, and humongous amount of terabytes have been devoted to making defamatory remarks against her on the internet. Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy is one of those who think they have a copyright on anything to do with Sonia Gandhi.

Singh has dwelt on three important episodes in Sonia's life: her journey from Italy to India as the wife of a debonair Rajiv Gandhi; her becoming the prime minister's wife; and finally, her career as the Congress president who led a demoralised party to power in 2004. The most interesting part, however, deals with her early years, besides anecdotes that reveal how caring she is towards people close to her. Wajahat Habibullah was a beneficiary of her indulgence after he had a severe accident. She got him posted to the US so that he could get good post-trauma care. When Habibullah requested Sonia to give him the address of her son Rahul, who was studying in the US, she politely told him that she is forbidden to do so by the security. This anecdote also shows how the Gandhis have been captive of their own security after two deaths and an accident in the family.

Singh does not throw much light on the circumstances in which Sonia gave up her claim to become prime minister after UPA came to power in 2004, and does not tackle the big controversy about the then President Abdul Kalam refusing to swear her in. Instead we are told that the fear of violent backlash against a person of Italian origin becoming prime minister of India compelled her to have a rethink

A well-written biography, this is a valuable addition to all those who need a reference book on the enigma called Sonia Gandhi. What it lacks is a nuanced assessment of her role in rebuilding Congress and shaping UPA's social and economic policies. But maybe that task is for later, when more people open up. 

Despite its hagiographical tenor, this biography of Sonia Gandhi illumines parts of her life that have long remained in the shadows
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews