A journey so adventurous, a personality so malleable is what can be summarized as the tagline of the current interim President of Congress, Sonia Gandhi’s life. Ever since her introduction to the Indian political world, her pathway has not been a straight one, from being criticized for having her roots from a European country to her Hindi accent’s mockery, is it all what Sonia Gandhi is about? Is it just the alleged charming ‘Gandhian legacy’ that led to the significant Congress rule under the aegis of Sonia Gandhi, or was she a driving force that guided the ambiguous political track?
Born as Edvige Antonia Albina Maino on December 9, 1946, to Stefano and Paola Maino in a small hamlet near Vicenza, Italy, Sonia was raised as an authentic Roman Catholic. Following her formal schooling in Italy, she went ahead to attend a language school in Cambridge, UK. To compensate for her living costs in Cambridge, Sonia took up a job as a bartender at a local bar.
Who would have known that an Italian bartender at Cambridge would have the fate of running the world’s largest democracy? But as destiny would have demanded, she met a young man at the very bar, who was studying engineering at Cambridge and went by the name Rajiv Gandhi. It was indeed love at first sight, ultimately leading them to tie the knot of marriage in an authentic Hindu ceremony, following which the couple moved to India.
Strangely, a strong bond grew between the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, but the newlywed couple did not show any apparent interest in politics, they rather stayed away from it. But as the future presented Sonia with two consequent shocks, the assassination of her mother-in-law in 1984 and her husband in 1991, she was left with no other choice than to step into politics, at a point when things were all crooked and curved.
It was in 1997 that Sonia formally joined the Indian National Congress at the Calcutta Plenary Session, and it was only a year later that she became a unanimous choice of the party members who were in favour of electing Sonia as their party president, except for two personalities. Tariq Anwar and P.A. Sangama resisted the decision by bringing into question her foreign roots. Their resistance was not given much importance, they left the party after being asked to resign and Sonia became the official face of the INC.
Sonia Gandhi’s popularity by then had gained so much momentum that in the constituency elections held in 1999 she defeated a veteran right-wing leader Sushma Swaraj, who stood against her in Bellary, Karnataka, but later she chose to represent Amethi. The same year she was elected as the leader of the opposition for the 13th Lok Sabha.
In the Lok Sabha Elections of 2004, as the counter of the NDA sponsored campaign slogan – ‘India Shining’, Congress under Sonia launched her campaign slogan – ‘Who is India shining for?’, a catchphrase that attracted the masses, who voted in the INC’s favour and the Congress-led UPA was all set to take charge of the government with Sonia Gandhi occupying the PMO. But this was extremely difficult for the right-wing leaders to digest, especially the BJP veterans, of which Sushma Swaraj warned that she will shave her head off and would sleep on the ground if Sonia would sit on the PM’s seat. NDA allegedly claimed that this occupation would violate Section 5 of the Indian Citizenship Act 1955. Owing to all the drama ultimately it was Dr Manmohan Singh who became the Prime Minister, a decision that was sanctioned by all. Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the INC was re-elected in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, again proving the mettle of her leadership.
Sonia Gandhi played the role of an architect while formulating the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Right to Information into laws, making it two of the most landmark political steps.
Unfortunately, as Sonia Gandhi stepped down as the front face of the Congress in the spree of giving this legacy to her son, Rahul Gandhi, Congress began experiencing a degradation in terms of popularity, trust and accountability. This step resulted in Congress losing two consecutive Lok Sabha elections in the years 2014 and 2019, bringing a much-awaited grin on the faces of many.
The biggest controversy attached to Sonia’s name is indeed the infamous Bofors scandal, which not only destroyed and dismantled Rajiv Gandhi’s reign as the Prime Minister but also led to a widespread internal conflict within the Congress.
Leaders like Subramaniam Swamy wanted Sonia Gandhi to be prosecuted for having close connections with the said scandal. While filing nomination papers for the 2004 elections, she was accused of submitting a ‘false affidavit’ of pseudo-information. She has over time, been accused of taking mysterious regular foreign trips, about there is not much first-hand information, some have charged her of having scandalous foreign accounts, for managing which she often takes these trips.
She has been criticized widely for having ‘used’ Dr Manmohan Singh as a mere puppet while the actual decisions were taken by her. She was termed as an extra-constitutional authority that was accountable to no one since under the Right to Information Act, all the questions related to Income Tax Return and her mysterious foreign trips, that were asked to her, were all denied in one go!
Sonia Gandhi has had a very tumultuous ride in India, both within and outside Indian politics. But as they rightly say, with great power comes great responsibility, not every individual can resist the power-sponsored hangover. It is the power that shapes a leader, but also that corrupts the same!