Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s ruling coalition, exerts significant influence over 1.2 billion lives. The coming days will be critical in sustaining her party’s and her family’s grip on power.
Born a Roman Catholic in small-town Italy, she met her future husband, Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), grandson of independent India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, while both were studying in Britain. Rajiv’s mother, Indira Gandhi, became the country’s third prime minister in 1966.
The life of Rajiv, a commercial pilot, changed radically after the death in an air crash of his younger brother, Sanjay, who had exercised disastrous political influence over his mother. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Rajiv became prime minister. Sonia adopted a dutiful profile and shunned the limelight.
Rajiv, in turn, was assassinated in 1991. Sonia retreated further into private life. But the political dominance of the Congress Party, which Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv had led, continued to weaken, enfeebled by internecine squabbling and the rise of powerful regional rivals. Reluctantly, by all accounts, Sonia allowed herself to be named party leader in 1998, given the appeal of the Gandhi family name and the lack of attractive options. Party elders and faction leaders were convinced she would prove malleable.
Quite to the contrary, Sonia rapidly revealed herself to be a surprisingly deft political tactician. In the country’s 2004 election, the coalition she led triumphed convincingly. The prime minister’s position could have been hers, but a sizable rump in the body politic objected to a foreign-born woman taking on the country’s most visible role. Once again, though, she proved herself a gifted political actor, nominating Manmohan Singh, a respected, reform-minded economist as prime minister, while retaining for herself management of the governing coalition, always publicly deferring to him.
But no one in Delhi doubted that she called the shots. On only one major file, a controversial agreement on nuclear co-operation with the United States, did she appear to yield to the Prime Minister. Otherwise, she allowed political considerations to prevail. Personally, she avoided the ostentatious projection of power to which so many Indian politicians are addicted. This clearly appealed to the long-suffering Indian electorate. Unlike the autocratic Indira Gandhi, her style has been consultative and consensual, displaying complete identification with her adopted country.
In conversation, she is self-deprecating. But in private, she can be sharply amusing about some of the politicians who, in inviting her to lead them, had anticipated that she would merely serve as their mouthpiece. She speaks often of family, of Indira Gandhi as a brilliant strategist and committed campaigner in the fight against poverty, and of Rajiv as a fine husband and a fond father. Her two children are at the heart of her personal life. Each may play a role in India’s future.
The re-election of the governing coalition in 2009 rewarded her performance and that of Dr. Singh’s government. But the government soon lost its bearings, with its legislative priorities adrift amidst growing civil society, media and public criticism of corruption, doubtless a painful theme for her as Rajiv’s reputation had been tarnished by an arms procurement scandal.
In the summer of 2011, Sonia slipped away to the United States for medical treatment, arising, it is believed, from cancer. She returned to India some months ago and resumed public duties, but without effecting an improvement in the coalition’s standing.
Sonia Gandhi consistently espouses the plight of the common man, very much as did Indira Gandhi. She speaks with conviction of the need for development and, implicitly, against India’s growing inequalities. Her government has struggled, often ineffectively, with the incapacity of the Indian state to address the plight of its poorest citizens. And it has been dragged into the mire by regional party allies that, in Delhi, are all too often driven by the spoils of power, notably through corruption. Her generous vision for India remains largely unrealized.
Sonia Gandhi may be viewed by historians of the future mainly as having kept the seat of power in Delhi warm for her son Rahul or her daughter Priyanka. Rahul, a good-looking, self-effacing 41-year-old policy wonk who has been unevenly successful in his political forays, is the heir apparent. But Priyanka, a year younger, is a brilliant campaigner, as she has repeatedly demonstrated in supporting the parliamentary campaigns of both her mother and brother.
It would be ironic for a modern Western woman of sharp intelligence to be known mainly as a cog in the Nehru-Gandhi family’s dynastic wheel. Dynastic politics have proved disastrous in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While propping up the Congress Party in India, they have not been able to reverse the long-term erosion of its support.
Elections are now taking place in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (with 200 million inhabitants), where Congress has fared poorly in the recent past, although both Rahul and Sonia hold UP seats in the national parliament. Rahul has thrown himself into the campaign. The outcome will colour Indian perceptions of his aptitude to succeed his mother as a national leader. With Sonia Gandhi’s future clouded by uncertain health prospects, the stakes are high.
Only the future will tell whether her legacy will be a lastingly positive one or essentially that of a courageous political fighter who sought to slow, if not reverse, the Congress Party’s decline.
David Malone, Canada’s envoy to India from 2006 to 2008, is president of the International Development Research Centre. He is the author of Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy . These views are his alone.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year Indira Gandhi became prime minister.