“I never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I am not. I am Indian”
— Sonia Gandhi in a rare television interview
In some ways it’s a Cinderella story. Girl from a modest family background meets prince, marries him and finally becomes queen of the land after his death. That tale could be Sonia Gandhi’s life story in a nutshell. Born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in the small Italian village of Lusiana, she is now seen as the most influential and powerful woman in India. Sonia heads the Congress Party, which leads the United Progressive Alliance, the present ruling coalition. Currently, she is running for re-election to the Indian parliament from the northern province of Uttar Pradesh.
The naturally shy Sonia, who initially refused to come out into the public eye, took over the political reins after the assassination of her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the son of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and grandson of the India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress Party (CP), synonymous with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, lost its footing with Rajiv Gandhi’s death and never recovered its composure. By the late 1990s, it was seriously in trouble while its opposition, the BJP, was fast rising to the top. But at its heart of hearts, most of India still had a soft spot for the Gandhi name, and after much cajoling from party representatives, Sonia formally joined its ranks in 1997.
Sonia garnered wide admiration when she infused life into the party after her campaigning struck a chord with the rural population and led to the defeat of the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2004. But she declined the post of prime minister and instead handed it over to Manmohan Singh after the victory, setting a new tune to Indian politics. With her clean reputation, ordinary Indians began to hope that she would tackle the corruption that is deeply embedded in the Indian political scene, speeding up India’s growth. Today, the 62-year old Sonia speaks at multiple rallies in a day, hopping from venue to venue in a chopper, as the Congress Party seeks to win the election and retain power. She has also made it clear that neither she nor her son Rahul Gandhi, who is looked upon as a promising future leader, is in the race for prime minister, a post that will again go to Manmohan Singh, if the party emerges victorious.
But with her throngs of supporters, some traveling far distances from neighboring villages just to have a glimpse of her, Sonia has shown that she has no need for top offices. She was the inspiration behind two of the Congress-led government’s most important policies concerning rural jobs, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and a loan waiver initiative for farmers. Billions were diverted into poverty alleviation programs and about $38 billion has been injected into rural development programs, along with more than $9 billion for the construction of rural roads. Quite a deal of the credit for this paradigm shift in focus on rural India belongs to Sonia, whose progressive view promotes equitable growth for all of India’s citizens. Initiatives like the $2.6 billion a year rural jobs program, often described as India’s New Deal, as well as the landmark right to information law have made Sonia a darling of the rural population.
Sonia was once much criticized for her lack of political experience, but now her popularity and influence on government policy have led to whispers that Manmohan Singh has been merely a puppet in her hands. She has been verbally attacked for her foreign origin and her place in Indian politics is frequently questioned. Many have mocked her ‘spaghetti English’ speeches and the Gandhi family’s sense of political entitlement.
Even so, Sonia Gandhi has managed to touch a chord with the people of India in her heavily accented Hindi from the time she entered politics. Her progressive reforms have earned her the number six rank on Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women in 2007. The Congress is wooing poorer voters by pricing rice and wheat as low as $0.06 per kilo or less than ¢ 3 per pound. But they may not have to do that. As voters line up to cast their vote, it is faith in a better future that will direct their choice, and Sonia has inspired plenty of that.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019