The Many Sacrifices of Sonia Gandhi


The Many Sacrifices of Sonia Gandhi

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Of a great leader you expect sacrifices. Heroes are measured by their ordeals. It is not necessary that they always win. So many die before they accomplish their goals. But the odds they fight must be mythical in dimension.

Seen from this vantage point, our prime minister Narendra Modi is also a hero. He has come up the hard way. But in terms and measures of classical mythology, Modi, and anyone else whom you care to mention, pales in comparison with one of the most under-appreciated stabilising factors of our times: Sonia Gandhi.

In recent times, no woman or man has been fated to sacrifice more than Sonia Gandhi. Consider the list of demands made of her. She forsook her language, her family, her country; she suffered the deaths, as in a Greek tragedy, of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. Imagine yourself as a shy girl brought up in, say, a village in the Himalayas. And then finding yourself in the midst of Italian politics, the history, language, and methods of which you have not the first idea of. Consider again Sonia Gandhi.

Take a good look. Sonia Gandhi resembles Hollywood actor, Jennifer Garner: the long plane of the face, the high forehead, the slightly sunken but expressive eyes, the high blades of the cheekbones, the sensual set of the mouth. Except Sonia is on a much bigger screen, and has been playing the role of a lifetime since her husband’s assassination in 1991.

In a lesser person the violence of the rites of passage is likely to have altered the personality into an embittered, tyrannical one. Hitler and Stalin were severely ill-treated by their fathers. They grew up to be killers. To be sure, other factors would have been at play. But the fact is no trauma goes unrecorded in its impact on the mind.

Equally, it would take a country as cynical as India not to be aware of a breathing martyr walking in their midst. We are very good at taking things for granted. Sonia perhaps makes the task harder because she wears tasteful saris and her face wears a studied expression of ironic passivity: She is trying to decipher the cruel amusements on offer at all times around her without passing judgement. She continues to pay the price of that understanding all her waking moments.

There was a time in the late 1990s when formidable politicians like Sharad Pawar and Narendra Modi and a whole host of parroting second-rung leaders across the spectrum brought up the charge of Sonia’s Italian birth. Their argument was she would not be loyal to India in a dire situation.

In a 1999 TV interview, for instance, Narendra Modi, whose beard then was not so silver, said in his characteristically reasonable voice the most unreasonable things about Sonia’s Italian blood. (What he said, as usual, had a falsely patriotic ring to it.) Modi said the problem was not Sonia. It was India. There were a billion Indians out there. Couldn’t we get one to be the PM? He probably meant himself. Still, that sounded like common sense to many. Still does. Never mind that in 1983, a year after Rajiv Gandhi joined politics, Sonia had already become a naturalised Indian citizen.

In law, Sonia had every right to be in any political office. It is a rather well-recorded incident of Indian political history that barely 24 hours after Rajiv Gandhi was killed at the hands of the LTTE, the Congress Party had asked her, in a gesture of appreciation, no doubt, to replace her husband as the PM. P C Alexander makes mention of it in his memoirs.

In the event, Sonia declined. A decade later Modi was wielding the other end of the sword. But by this time, Sonia had learnt to make a shield of her heart. That process was nothing if not one of total and violent dispossession of the self: Sonia became someone else. And she had the least idea what that entailed. The story of her great departures begins there.

At least twice (1991 and 2004) in her life, she had renounced the prime ministership of this chaotic if cunningly regenerative country. In between, too, once, in 1999, when the Vajpayee government fell. The Modi criticism of Italian birth was made around that time. That same year she admitted in an interview with Rajiv Shukla, “I could have become PM. I said no.”

Sonia encompasses every variation of that theme. Her love made her utter a speech and inhabit a thought that had nothing to do with her birth.

That streak of self-abnegation was in evidence again in 2006, though by this time, she had complete control of the party and the political scene. Nevertheless, she resigned from the Lok Sabha and from the powerful National Advisory Council as its chairperson on the principle of office of non-profit.

It would seem that Sonia was almost looking for her strange Other in these acts of renunciation. The chairs she gave up, the same ones that the others would kill and die for, perhaps were just the ornaments of her transformation. The hazards were the real thing. That she braved them is the sign of her spirit’s arduous progress. The signposts on the way led to precipices and perhaps even to oblivion; she had no idea what was in store for her. An assassination, or an attempt in that direction could still happen.


Martin Heidegger in his Letter on Humanism talks, among other things, of language as the house of Being. To the normal zealot Indian, it should not be hard to see how integral, say, Hindi, is to his wellbeing. Its dispossession will divest his being of meaning. The spirit, an intangible thing few of us will recognise in the flesh, would have no dwelling place.

In a very central sense, Sonia’s spirit is that of a wandering Jew – and not just because of her dispossession from her native tongue, which she ceased speaking soon after getting married to Rajiv in 1968. After that her husband expected her to speak Hindi at home. And she did. But a language is not just speech. It’s a way of thought. Learning Hindi in Sonia’s context truly means to be invested in the diabolical political and cultural tropes that come with that language.

In Sonia’s case though it’s not just language she sacrificed at the altar of love for her husband. The giving up of the European values she grew up with can’t have been easy. In her mind, she would have had to struggle to nip the rose that climbed the wall of her three-storeyed house in her village. Who devised the torment? “Love. Love is the unfamiliar name/ Behind the hands that wove/ The intolerable shirt of flame.” Sonia is still wearing that shirt.

This nation by and large tends to swear by the self-effacing ideal of the Bharatiya nari. Our middle-class fantasies are made of that stuff. Our ways of amusements derive from it: What’s the substantive Bollywood tradition of narrative if not about the strong, silent, and in-laws-serving bahu? The whole of the Ramayana’s fabric hangs by the devout Sita’s thread.

Sonia encompasses every variation of that theme. Her love made her utter a speech and inhabit a thought that had nothing to do with her birth. Only once in all these years in public did she slip into Italian, when Indira Gandhi fell to the bullets of her bodyguards. On October 31, 1984, Sonia cradled Indira’s head in her arms in a white ambassador that was rushing the PM to AIIMS and screamed as her sari turned red, “No, no, madre mia.” No, no, my mother. That scream in Italian is in fact an indication of the violence of her suppression of her natural instincts that defined her being. It took guns to bring it out.

In an interview with Vir Sanghvi in 1998, Sonia said: “I went through a difficult patch after my husband’s death.” That was a characteristic understatement. She went through hell. Her family reportedly wanted her to come back with Rahul and Priyanka to Italy. She stayed back, once again said no to Paola Maino, her mother. If events are anything to go by, she did infinitely more. She saw that the Congress Party would disintegrate without a Gandhi tag. That it was an act of faith by her husband to lead the party. She became a politician.

To see the violent speed with which she covered the spectrum of changes, one must recall her past, when all she wanted was to become an air hostess. She went to Bell Education Trust in Cambridge to learn English so she could become one. In Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, we learn that Indira became fond of Sonia: she was docile, accommodating, and affectionate. The last two traits were essential to be an air hostess. The first indispensable for a daughter-in-law.

Imagine yourself in Sonia’s place: Today your spouse is murdered; tomorrow you have to lead a party and fight the collective guile of the likes of P V Narasimha Rao, Sharad Pawar, L K Advani, and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Sonia did that. And learnt fast. Narasimha Rao, for instance, was her nomination for the PM’s post. In the next five years, she would be marginalised by him. Her obsession at that time was to pin the murderers of Rajiv Gandhi (notwithstanding the fact that she would later forgive Nalini, the prime accused.)

Rao thought there were more important things to be done. They grew apart. She hung on; learnt to bide her time, hide her hurt, took care never to be seen begging at any point, and slowly expanded her influence. She learnt to nudge things along, and when it was the right time, a little after the 1996 general elections, which the Congress lost, showed Rao his place.

The great poet Paul Celan talks about “How everything is different from how we conceive it…” If someone sat Sonia down when she was a child and told her the story of her life, she would tell him, “No that’s not me, it’s someone else.” Sonia’s journey is not physical so much as finding a kind of home, far as the farthest field, the Other – she has severed every one of her moorings with the blade of love. And most terrifyingly perhaps for a Roman Catholic, for all practical purposes, she seems to have parted ways with her God as well. She may have met Pope Paul John twice, but in India at least, not once has she been caught sending so much as a sly glance in the direction of the cross.

Of course, the sacrifices of Sonia have ended up ennobling her, not to mention uniquely empowering her as well. As one of the AICC secretaries close to her says, “In her presence, it is hard to have negative thoughts. We know what she has given up.”

In the process, she has both reinforced and defied every female archetype of Indian society: woman; foreigner; daughter-in-law; widow; single mom. She is all that and at the same time none of it. It is as if she has found a sort of locus, an intermediary space she has deconstructed from a certain fraught and ongoing problematic for habitation of the self; the self that she has wrought for herself. A dwelling place for her doppelgänger.

When Rajiv became PM against her wishes (“Sonia: They will kill you. Rajiv: They will kill me anyway”), she had a foreboding of the end. She must now have internalised it to the point where she pretty much takes it for granted that she too may fall before her time. That applies for her children, Rahul and Priyanka, too. She walks and breathes in that apocalyptic light. That there would be more violence. More sacrifice. And that the only way to live with that kind of knowledge of her existence is to accept it.

It’s life as meditation amidst war. Eliot talks about “a condition of complete simplicity/ costing not less than everything.” It has cost Sonia everything to reach her extreme Other: Gandhi.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of Arré.