The Accidental Prima Donna

Published in CounterPunch, April 18-20

She spoke for three minutes. It was enough to make the rightwing Hindutva groups desperate and unleash abuses. Sonia Gandhi’s biggest political weapon has been silence. Every word she utters gains that much more weight by comparison. Behind the mystery and enigma is a canny political mind. She has understood the Indian pulse better than many, and positioned herself as a matriarch monarch.

“What are these values that are the very heart and soul of our motherland?” she said in a TV clip on the Congress website. They are love and respect, harmony and brotherhood. In a word, non-violence...Today, our society stands at a crossroads. Their (BJP's) vision, clouded with hatred and falsehood, their ideology, divisive and autocratic, will drive us to the ruination of our Bharatiyata, our Hindustaniyat.”

Although others have expressed such sentiments, the response reveals that she has touched the BJP’s raw spot, something it has not been able to live down. They fall into the trap, some even emphasising that Hindustaniyat is Hindutva. They stand exposed. Predictably, they question a foreigner’s right to discuss Indianness. Sonia Gandhi ceased to be Italian when she took Indian citizenship in 1983, a year after the family returned from abroad, where they lived after the Emergency, and her husband Rajiv Gandhi joined politics. The 30-year period ought to qualify her as a naturalised citizen.

However, alienation has worked well for her.

Inheritance of loss

While her slain husband and two children were hesitant to enter the fray, Sonia Gandhi was never a reluctant politician. Her refusal to be the prime minister was also a political act that stood her in good stead. Indians connect emotionally with detachment. She came across as one not ambitious for herself.

For a moment, let us pause with British historian David Starkey who upon noticing Queen Elizabeth II’s desultory interest in the exhibits at the National Maritime Museum, except for one that she recognised as her ancestor and exclaimed “mine”, said: “I don’t think she’s at all comfortable with anybody intellectual. I think she’s got elements a bit like Goebbels in her attitude – you remember, he said. ‘Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver’.”

This is not to compare the comment with Sonia Gandhi, but to note the proprietorial and ghettoised tone of “mine”. In a sense, the aura we see around her is the burden of a few reputations: 

“My family has always been the target of the opposition – be it Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi -- each one was targeted with equal vehemence. They were not merely prime ministers but great leaders, therefore unmindful of the opposition they continued to serve the nation."

It helps that she and Rajiv were not tainted by the Emergency, and despite Rajiv Gandhi’s kneejerk reaction after his mother’s assassination – “The earth shakes when a big tree falls” – one remembers her as the daughter-in-law who rushed out to the lawn when Indira Gandhi’s security guards shot her. 

It is a Pieta-like image, repeated tragically on May 21, 1991 with her standing near the ambulance that carried her husband’s remains after a suicide bomb attack by the LTTE. In 1999, she wrote to the President to commute the death sentence of the convicts. “My children suffered at the death of my beloved husband Rajiv Gandhi to a great extent and therefore we do not favour that another child in the world should lose mother and father.” (sic) It was a humane gesture; it was also politically astute.
Most women in subcontinent politics tend to adopt a maternal role. It is a commonsensical route to deal with inherent patriarchy – either you mimic men or deities. Indira Gandhi became Goddess Durga. Sonia Gandhi has managed without a titular title. It is surprising that people are surprised she called the shots in the government. However, it would have been only at the macro level. For one who is dismissed for being not well-educated, she is given too much credit.

A recent book on Dr. Manmohan Singh, The Accidental Prime Minister, is seen as a hatchet job released during the election season. Its author Sanjaya Baru, the former media advisor to the PM, explained his intent: “He has become an object of ridicule, not admiration. I am showing him as a human being, I want there to be empathy for him.”

The BJP is gloating over “two centres of power” and the Congress is on the defensive. There are also whispers that this work might please the PM. In a CounterPunch piece five years ago, I raised this point: “He is in the enviable position to get away with anything and attribute it to helplessness, because he is not considered rabid, rigid, or regressive. And he is answerable to the dynasty. It would be no revelation to state that Sonia Gandhi is propping up Dr. Manmohan Singh; the more pertinent point is that he chooses to be propped up.”

She is the longest serving president of the Congress and also heads the coalition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the Lok Sabha. Sharad Pawar, who had challenged her on the foreigner issue and formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is one of the allies. She went out and contested elections and won from Rae Bareilly in 2004 and 2009, her margin increasing from 59 to 72 per cent.  It was senior leaders who anointed her. There was nothing democratic about it.

Managing contradictions

Helming a political party as the divine right of kings, she has not been answerable to anyone. It is a position and role difficult for anyone to play well. How has she managed it?

She thundered, “Today every stone is being thrown at me, every arrow shot at me and every bullet fired at me.” This was during the assembly elections of 2006 in her constituency. The crowd chorused: “Sonia tumhara yeh balidaan, yaad karega Hindustan (Hindustan will remember your sacrifice).”

She did not marry into a dynasty; she married an airline pilot. There is much to question about dynastic politics, but is the Nehru-Gandhi clan the only one? From Jammu-Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, politics has become the fiefdom of families, not unlike industrialists who are the backroom boys in government. There are also the residue royals who want to maintain their polished silver and indeed enjoy the fealty of a junta that believes pomp and pageantry will imbue them with grace and ensure old-fashioned justice.

One reason Sonia Gandhi does not dismiss the loyalists is because it helps to bolster what is really an empty throne. The Gandhi children have not been able to sustain, or capitalise on, the heritage link. In a way, this would be seen as striking out on their own without any baggage, and it is not always a pretty baggage.

Where does Priyanka Gandhi figure in this? It is decidedly uncomfortable to watch Congress leaders call upon her for cosmetic reasons – she has charisma and looks like her grandmother. Unlike Indira Gandhi who was initially dubbed “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) when she was known only as her father’s daughter, Priyanka is lucid. Her cheerleader act is not of a mute bystander, but a vocal one. She publicly ticks off her cousin Varun, who is a BJP candidate, for letting down the family; she publicly states it is not a family tea party. No one cares about such contradictions. She is a bit of Mother India – a complete woman, standing by her husband despite questions raised about his role in land scams, looking after her children, tending to her home and taking an ostensibly independent stand, even if that means not to be a part of politics. At best, she can be another Sonia Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi has to live up to a name and also stay away from the smears on it. India is not just his constituency, and poverty is not about a hutment tour. He was taken off the cradle and asked to complete a marathon. It is not possible. Therefore, the relay race came in handy. Sonia Gandhi passed the baton to Manmohan Singh who passed it to Rahul who passed it back to the PM and then it all goes back to Ms. Gandhi, which is how the chain has been sustained. In the past year, he has shown that he wants to change the system. He has spoken for a federal structure. These are idealistic ideas and rather uncomfortably go against what Ms. Gandhi has had to manoeuvre to keep a legacy alive and herself relevant.

She has not only survived slurs but thrived due to them. The Congress losing in the polls will not be an issue for her; she has been the leader of the opposition before. She stayed away from the limelight for seven years after Rajiv Gandhi’s death. When she accepted the post of party president, it was seen as another sacrifice as she was called upon to sew together warring factions. At some point, she became the fabric and later the pennant. That is unlikely to change.

The dynasty is now essentially about one woman’s battle to keep alive inherited beliefs. Redux is just another way of looking at history.

© Farzana Versey 

Also Part I of India Elects: Modi as Hindutva's Marionette


Images: NDTV, Times of India, India Today, The Hindu


  1. void *Al() {return NULL;}18/04/2014, 23:15

    " It is surprising that people are surprised she called the shots in the government. However, it would have been only at the macro level"

    FV, that is all well and good as long as she does not get to read and is not passed confidential memos meant for the Prime Minister's eyes alone. These things are set in stone in a constitutional republic.
    Just pointing out there are some lines here that must not be crossed but were crossed due to a Prime Minister who denigrated the office of the PM, as detailed in Sanjaya Baru's book (yes, I just read it) -- I find it hard to empathize with a guy crawled when he did even have to bend.

  2. 7-10 years down the live, something similar will be written about Rahul Gandhi. No one ever thought or expected that Sonia Gandhi would be able to achieve anything at all when she started. Someone like Jyoti Basu called her a house-wife. How to work against relentless resistance, sinister rivals and still retain the relevance and also keep coming at the top? For answer, look at these Gandhis.

  3. void *Al() {return NULL;}19/04/2014, 07:33

    " How to work against relentless resistance, sinister rivals and still retain the relevance and also keep coming at the top?"

    When you have an army of sycophants willing to do your bidding out of their own self-interest, it is quite easy to keep them motivated to protect your image -- survival instinct of the sycophant army is sufficient to keep the object of sycophancy coming out on top. Distinctly anti-democratic behavior is being applauded under a veneer of pretense that this is all democratic.

  4. Hi FV,
    Thanks for the encompassing article.

    My admiration is to their decency, and cosmopolitanism, being thoughtful about marginalized segments too.

    Around 90s sanghis had succeeded in dismantling congress, when some senior leaders looked to be hand in glove. To their dismay Sonia was able to retrieve the party, else hatetva would have no counter force by now. That was a much one best contribution from her, good enough for many.



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