IT was a chance in a lifetime. I saw her one fine evening standing alone in the garden after I had completed my interview with her husband, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. As she used to decline any formal requests for press interviews when he was alive. I just walked over and greeted her.
Congress party president Sonia Gandhi was gracious as always and welcomed me to her house. We had a hearty and uninterrupted conversation in the garden, which was filled with hundreds of politicians and party ticket seekers. They were there because the general elections in the country were just around the corner.
Rajiv was immersed in the crowd, smiling to everyone and shaking hands with those nearby. He was preparing for his comeback election having lost the previous one. But the loss had not dented his own popularity and that of the Congress Party, which had ruled India for most of the years following independence from Britain. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv’s grandfather, became the first prime minister of free India.
Rajiv’s mother Indira Gandhi succeeded her father as the prime minister replacing Lal Bahadur Shastri who ruled the country for a short spell after Nehru’s death. She was to be succeeded by her son Sanjay, had he not died in a plane crash over the capital city while stunt flying.
So Indira groomed Rajiv to take over in case of her death or defeat. She was later assassinated by her bodyguards who pumped as many as 30 bullets into the 66-year-old charismatic leader at her home in retaliation for the raid ordered by her on the Golden Temple, holy of holies of the Sikh community, in which a number of Sikhs were killed. She was aware of the risk of keeping Sikh bodyguards but adamantly refused to replace them. After Indira’s death, Sonia could not have persuaded Rajiv not to join the political fray even if she wanted to as he was all prepared for it.
At the time of our meeting, Rajiv was the “crown prince” of India. He had been prime minister once and was destined to become once again as he was expected to win the elections at hand. But the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, based in India, had decided otherwise and killed him.
Sonia went into a long period of mourning and distanced herself from the milling crowd of the Congress party to take care of her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka. But for a long time Sonia kept her children away from public life fearing if something happened to them also she would surely have been shattered. Priyanka was later married and Rahul is satisfied with the leadership role in the party.
Sonia also stayed aloof from the party refusing to take up the office for a long time apparently not wanting to be immersed in the political mess partly because she was of Italian origin and would be subject to charges by the Congress men and smears by others for being a foreigner. It took her a long time to succumb to demands by the party to get involved, until l998 when she became leader of the Congress, the first person of non-Indian origin to lead the oldest and strongest political party in the subcontinent.
She was fated perhaps and so was India to become intertwined. She was a foreigner who led and revived the party. She is now its president and the most influential person in India. She once declined to become prime minister. I watched her on television saying that while she was grateful to a majority of leaders who requested her to lead the new government, her inner voice told her not to do so and that she was happy to recommend Manmohan Singh for the position. She was of course right to do so as Singh has proven to be one of the finest leaders of post-independence India. He is still in power and doing quite well. He is one of the most honest and competent men to lead the country.
I have been following her career ever since and believe that she has been a boon for India as she has proved to be not only a talented lady but a woman of solid integrity in a country that is not exactly the most politically pure in the world. She has been already adjudged as one of the best leaders in the world and one of the most influential ladies in power. She has led the Congress back to power in general elections also with Singh as prime minister.
She can now smile a little, years after Rajiv’s horrific assassination and the constant needling by so many people about her foreign origins although she had been married to the top Indian man in his time for decades.
Sonia met Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge during his tenure at university while she was learning English and earning a living by working in a restaurant. On his insistence and obvious love she agreed to marry him and go to India with him not knowing of course what the future held in store for her. Not even the leadership of 1.2 billion people and their obvious reverence would compensate her for the tragic loss of Rajiv Gandhi.
n Farouk Luqman is an eminent
journalist based in Jeddah.