Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sonia Gandhi by Rani Singh

Edvige Antonia Albina Maino has come a long way since her childhood in Italy. Given the pet name Sonia by her father who once spent time in time in Russia as a prisoner of war, Sonia Maino went to Cambridge to improve her language skills, met Rajiv Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous and longest lasting political dynasty (who had no political ambitions then), married him and lived happily ever after. Except that, things didn’t work out exactly like that and two political assassinations later, Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress Party which currently holds the reins of India’s federal government.

Biographer Rani Singh is a London based journalist who has worked with the BBC for many years. I picked up her biography of Sonia Gandhi in the hope that it would tell me something about the Lady-From-The-Land-Of-Mona-Lisa-With-An-Equally-Enigmatic--Smile which I didn’t know about. Disappointment settled in quite early. On page 3 itself, Rani Singh describes Rajiv as ‘North Indian, aristocratic and tall’. Born to a Parsi father and a Kashmiri Pandit mother, I’ve never heard Rajiv Gandhi described as a ‘North Indian.’ The Nehrus were very cosmopolitan, we are told by Rani Singh, though Indira Gandhi (who herself had married a Parsi) apparently had wanted a Kashmiri daughter-in-law for her son Rajiv.

This biography has evidently been written for a global audience, especially for people who have a vague idea of India and the Gandhi family and Sonia’s role in it and want to know more about all three. Nevertheless, I plodded along and was rewarded to some extent. There were a few trivia I hadn’t known about earlier. For example, I hadn’t known that Sonia’s father didn’t approve of her marriage and didn’t attend her wedding in India. I got to know a lot about Indira, Rajiv and Sonia’s food habits. Apparently one day, Sanjay Gandhi threw his plate across the room because the eggs Sonia Gandhi had cooked for him hadn’t turned out right. However, such gleanings are mere titbits and don’t really make this biography worth reading. Also, Rani Singh leaves some facts unexplained. We are told that Rahul Gandhi lived and worked in London for a while under the name Raul Vinci. Why did he do that? Was there a security threat to Rahul Gandhi in London? Even more intriguingly, we are told that Yaasser Arafat had warned Rajiv Gandhi of the threat to his life, just as Indira Gandhi had given a similar warning to Yaasser Arafat. How did Yaasser Arafat know of a threat to Rajiv Gandhi’s life? Let’s not forget that the LTTE which killed Rajiv Gandhi did have ties to the PLO at one point. No, Rani Singh tells us nothing more, in her book which at times seems to be largely a compilation of quotations from various sources.

Because this biography seeks to explain Sonia’s India to its readers, one gets a prĂ©cis of the various political events that took place in India after Sonia’s arrival. Events such as the spat with Maneka Gandhi are also covered. However, this summary of events is, just like the rest of the biography, written in a one-sided manner which shows Sonia, Rajiv, their children Rahul and Priyanka and to a lesser extent Indira Gandhi in a very flattering light. For example, Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare emergency is described in the following manner: 'The morning of June 25 the threatened opposition protest packed the streets while Indira consulted a prominent lawyer and chief minister who was an expert on the Indian Constitution, telling him that drastic urgent action is required. The lawyer left to read and re-read the constitution and returned with his findings. Indira then asked him to escort her to see the President whom she informed that, as the Indian constitution provided grounds for action when a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances”, Indira and her government had decided to declare a State of Internal Emergency.

There are certain notable omissions. There is no mention of Rajiv’s statement trivialising the anti-Sikhs riots that took place following his mother’s assassination. A few weeks after the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi is reported to have said, 'Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.'

Rani Singh tells us that ‘Rajiv’s death was the most devastating of the three Sonia had experienced in the Nehru side of the family. Yet she now had to lead, to handle the proceedings and only managed it with the support of her equally devastated children.’ Yeah Rani Singh, I was under the impression that Sonia might have been devastated more by Indira Gandhi’s or possibly even Sanjay Gandhi’s death than Rajiv’s! Thanks Rani Singh for clarifying.

The funny thing about this biography is that it is not an authorised one and the author has not interviewed Sonia Gandhi for this book. One would expect an unauthorised biography to ask all the tough questions and poke into uncomfortable corners. Rani Singh does nothing of that sort. Using a consistently flattering note throughout the book, the reader is given a rose-tinted view of the Gandhi clan as a whole and the Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka sub-clan in particular. The ease with which political dynasties perpetuate in the sub-continent is explained and even justified, but is never questioned. The last one-third of the book seeks to explain why, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Sonia Gandhi entered politics after some initial reticence. According to Rani Singh, Sonia Gandhi was not happy at the way the Narasimha Rao government handled various issues, especially the Babri Masjid demolition. Also, many Congressmen keenly wanted a Gandhi at the helm. Therefore, Sonia Gandhi, who till then was working with a few NGOs which sought to further Rajiv Gandhi’s ideals and dreams, stepped into full-time politics. I can’t say I found this explanation fully convincing. After all, wasn’t it the same Sonia who so desperately tried to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from entering politics because she feared for his life? Now after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the same Sonia is keeping the chair warm for Rahul! Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s induction of Rahul into the mainstream of politics has been gentle. Though many critics are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.

Rani Singh doesn’t bother to analyse whether Sonia Gandhi is justified in controlling power from behind the scenes, taking decisions which the Prime Minister ought to be taking. Power without responsibility is not necessarily a great thing. An unfazed Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s project for India is grand social legislation and it’s driven by gut instinct more than calculation. For this purpose, she has created bodies entirely new to the Indian polity, made up of outspoken academics……………

Before I end, tell me say that I do admire Sonia Gandhi for her dignity, grace and courage under fire. From what one sees and hears, she is as good a human being and politician as any in this country. There are faults of course, but then, who is without them? In any event, Sonia Gandhi deserves a better biographer than Rani Singh.

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