Sonia Gandhi: The Making of an Indian
Celebrating three quarters of a century of her life, much of it in a country where she was not born but which she embraced with the deepest sincerity and intensity and made her own.
As a Congress member and witness to the party’s chequered history, I am privileged to have seen Sonia Gandhi and her unique political persona from close quarters. It is not for nothing that most people believe that even as she turns 76 and has now left the daily political grind to her gifted children and an experienced colleague, a credible grand alliance of secular opposition parties for Lok Sabha 2024 cannot happen without her. A week in politics, they say, is a long time and it might be yet too early to speculate but something seems to foretell a replay of the magic she produced for the birth of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) back in 2004, and the ten exciting years that followed. We all get tired in the body with passing years, and she too may say that, but recent interactions showed no signs of exhaustion but rather a great deal of hope and determination.
Some day, a definitive book will be written about the remarkable life of Sonia Gandhi to add to the body of short, perceptive commentaries by people who have known her well. For the present, we celebrate the three quarters of a century of her life, much of it in a country where she was not born but which she embraced with the deepest sincerity and intensity and made her own. The people of India reciprocated that love in full measure with only a few shortsighted political adversaries knowing no better than to question her origins for lack of any other handy weapons. They all surely rue their unsuccessful enterprise. For those of us who have enthusiastically accepted and admired Sonia Gandhi, it is not because she steered our politics to fulfilment but the grace and sense of belonging that she showed at all times—to some a sister, to some a daughter, to others a mother. Just as Annie Besant and C.F. Andrews left their footprints in the glorious history of our independence, so has Sonia Gandhi left a deep impression on the evolution of the Indian National Congress in our time.
Her remarkable life is also a powerful statement on the lasting virtues of Indianness or Bhartiyata and indeed the universal values of humanity. In a world subject to massive migrations of populations, for one reason or another, the cultural and political space is getting dramatically transformed. It is no longer unusual to see a person from the South Asian diaspora holding an important position in a western democracy where once the election of a Catholic or Black US President was thought impossible, till John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama broke through. More recently, Rishi Sunak has changed the face of conservatism in the UK. Sonia Gandhi had the nation beseeching her to take over the reins of power in 2004, but she chose to do something uniquely Indian, to refuse the comfort and trappings of office and continue to serve with a personal commitment. That was both an affirmation of the Indian philosophy of sacrifice and a clear public statement of a commitment beyond the pursuit of power for its own sake. These are, of course, features of her world view, but even in the everyday ordinary affairs of people, of her fellow Indians, the quality and character of her warmth and empathy, her sensitivity and special concern for children, women, the differently-abled and the grieving, her special intimate gestures bring to mind a very Indian aatmiyata; they are all reflections of her best Indian expression.
Many of us in modern-day Indian politics are considered Westernised because we went to English-speaking public schools. When I say that the words of Jawaharlal Nehru echo in the ears. He was deeply immersed in Indian culture and social tradition and yet determined to fight the regressive practices that had deep roots in the country. He saw no contradiction between being scientific, modern and intellectually liberal on the one hand and being proud of the uniquely Indian ethos that grew out of India’s many religions on the other. Perhaps Nehru had to unlearn and discover simultaneously. Perhaps Sonia Gandhi did too: she came from a western civilisation but imbibed and absorbed the cultural ethos of India smoothly and quickly to become an icon for natural-born modern Indians.
The quality of grace in the face of extreme adversity or personal tragedy is the other most striking dimension to her understated personality. The kind of brutal personal tragedy Sonia Gandhi has weathered would have broken a lesser person. She never appears shaken and seldom even despondent when political developments are adverse. She has taken in her stride great betrayals, when party colleagues whom she nurtured and supported over long years deserted her in difficult times. There wasn’t even a disapproving word in public.
Responding to the vicious campaign to undermine his uniquely inclusive UPA government, Dr Manmohan Singh once said: “History will be kind to us.” The person who quietly, unflinchingly backed that social commitment to the welfare of the poor and dispossessed, behind the scenes but with everything at her command, was Sonia Gandhi. She set the stage for it even before Dr Singh’s government took charge, in the 2004 election campaign itself, when she asked: ‘Aam aadmi ko kya mila?’ (What did the common man get?) to counter the BJP’s loud and disingenuous ‘India Shining’ campaign. It was that deeply felt commitment to the most disadvantaged Indian that laid the foundations of Dr Singh’s social welfare government. History will also remember that. Even as Indian history, past and modern, is sought to be re-written by the incumbent government and their ideological progenitors, that daring attempt to re-imagine India as a more inclusive, egalitarian nation will remain etched in the hearts of all those who love the country.