Looking at the photographs of Sonia Gandhi from her early days in India, a time when she was a carefree young girl in love with her Indian prince charming, I am amazed at the transformation that has taken place over the years. The years between then and now have been tragically difficult and extremely challenging and yet she has faced them with courage and fortitude. Her strength has been applauded by her loved ones as well as her detractors. Her daughter Priyanka said on Saturday, as she watched the transition of the leadership of the Congress Party from her mother to her brother, “I have watched my mother through the years and she is one of the strongest women I know.”
Sonia herself admitted that on the day she became the Congress President, she had stood on stage her hands with trembling, feeling extreme anxiety. That was, however, not what the people saw. They saw a strong woman, full of grace and poise taking on the responsibility of revitalizing a hundred-year old Party that had the distinction of having led the country to freedom and which had, over more than a century, been headed by stalwarts like Dadabhai Nauroji, Madan Mohan Malviya, Sarojini Naidu, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru amongst the many other famous names.
When she first came to India, she had to necessarily conform to living in the public glare, being the daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister of India and the latest addition into the most influential political family of the country. She chose to keep as private as she could and carved out a quiet space for her herself, her husband and her children, living in the shadow of, and so close to the centre of power. Over the years she has become more Indian than any of us. She speaks Hindi as well as you and I do and better than many. She enjoys hot gulab jamuns and crisp jalebis and has a weakness for Indian textiles.
Developing and sharing a close bond with her mother-in-law, who herself had grown up imbibing the nuances of Indian culture; Sonia eagerly learned from Indira Gandhi the innumerable traditions of this large and varied land. She came to appreciate its food, its dress, its language, its dance and music and its crafts and textiles. She developed a sense of style on the lines of her mentor favouring sarees in traditional Indian weaves. Her understated elegance gained her admiration worldwide and Sonia was named one of the best-dressed women in the world.
She came to love her adopted country, working alongside her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, when he joined politics after the death of his younger brother. She made connections with the people of his constituency, and they showered their love upon her and welcomed her as their bahu. A relationship developed and continues even today, forty years later.
In my early years of working with Rajiv Gandhi I had heard that Sonia was reticent and kept very much to herself. Little did I know then that I would be working so closely with her and be one the few privileged to see the woman behind that persona. Behind the strong and stern visage, is a warm and compassionate person, who is easily moved by the plight of the people. But, no one but the closest to her would be allowed to get a glimpse of the softness inside her.
I can’t ever forget how deeply moved she would be with the stories of suffering she heard in the Grievance Cell which I look after. It was not unusual to hear her ask for clothes to be organized for a poorly dressed child or to organize a meal for hungry travelers who had come from far to meet her. Nor can I forget the time that she waded in ankle deep mud in a tribal area, her saree hitched up and her face filled with compassion for the people who had lost their homes.
We also heard stories of how when Sonia first came to India she was petrified of her fiance’s mother. But I only saw Sonia sharing a warm and comfortable relationship with Indira ji. It was unfortunately her sad duty to accompany the grievously injured and bleeding Indira ji, her body riddled with bullets that her own bodyguards had pumped into her. Sonia cradled her mother-in-law’s head in her lap. One can only guess at the grief Sonia must have felt that day, losing the woman who was a mother to her.
The tragedy catapulted her privacy-loving husband to the forefront of Indian polity and to the post of India’s Prime Minister. Stoically, she took her place by Rajiv’s side, still in grief and shock from witnessing the assassination at such close quarters. But that was not to be the end of the traumatic experiences for Sonia Gandhi. Another humongous, earth-shaking tragedy threw her life into turmoil when her beloved husband was assassinated.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, tempted though she must have been to leave everything behind and take her children to the safety of her parents’ home in Italy, she chose to live here in the country. Choosing to return to a private life, away from the limelight, Sonia Gandhi refused all requests by the party to take her husband’s place. She wanted to grieve in private and bring up her traumatized children. I shudder to think how deep her pain was.
In the few years that she remained away from the politics, the Congress Party was factionalized and though in power at the centre, began to lose elections in the states. At the request of the Party, Sonia agreed to take on the role of the President, to stem the downslide. She reunited and revitalized the INC and its cadres and led them to a Lok Sabha win in 2004 and again in 2009. She still shunned the post of the Prime Minister, however, citing her inner voice which, she said, was advising her against it. In true Indian spirit of selflessness and renunciation, she suggested that Dr. Manmohan Singh, who she felt was far more qualified to lead the country, be made the Prime Minister.
She chose to work with the people, instead, as the Chairperson of the NAC. Believing that progress and development mean nothing unless the poorest of the poor and the last person in line are included in the growth story, she used the position and power conferred upon her by the Party to developing programmes such as the Food Security Bill and the MGNREGA to benefit millions of Indians living in poverty and hunger.
After 19 long years at the helm, the longest serving President of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi stepped down last week, handing over the reins to her son Rahul Gandhi. She has, in these years, had ridicule heaped upon her by the opposition and sometimes by the rebels in her own Party. She has dealt with it all, as with all her other challenges, with strength, fortitude and her shoulders fairly squared.