In once hostile India, Sonia Gandhi reigns supreme

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : Just over a decade after she entered Indian politics amid charges that she was a foreigner, Congress president Sonia Gandhi is today arguably the country’s tallest politician, with her critics going silent on her once controversial Italian origin.

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Although it is her trusted colleague Manmohan Singh who is the prime minister, it is the 62-year-old Gandhi, chairperson of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), who is widely considered the real power behind the throne.

In any case, Gandhi is the undisputed boss of India’s oldest political party and is principally credited for its remarkable comeback to power in the parliamentary election, winning the highest number of 206 seats in the lower house, Lok Sabha, since 1991.

Politicians and political analysts admit that Gandhi has truly emerged as a hugely popular leader.

“She has led the Congress to victory in two successive elections. That is the closest you can get to getting the people’s mandate,” noted analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told IANS.

In any case, he said, the issue of her foreign origin “died a natural death” much earlier and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was once vocal on the topic, overstretched it with a negative campaign.

But it was Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Purno Sangma’s dramatic move to apologize to Gandhi for carrying on a sustained campaign against her over her foreign origin that appeared to formally bury the once emotive affair.

It was in 1999 when Sangma, Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar broke away from the Congress after labelling Gandhi a foreigner, dealing a stunning blow to her political ambitions after the collapse of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in parliament by a single vote.

The NCP later made up with the Congress but Sangma did not. The former Lok Sabha speaker continued to insist that Gandhi was a foreigner and urged his party leader Pawar to divorce the Congress.

But last week, after his daughter Agatha Sangma became a member of the coalition government of Manmohan Singh, Sangma senior drove up to Sonia Gandhi’s house with Agatha to say ‘thank you’ – and ‘sorry’.

Born Sonia Maino Dec 9, 1946 near Turin in Italy, she met Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge. They married in 1968 when his mother Indira Gandhi was prime minister and were to become parents of two children – Priyanka and Rahul.

The once apolitical Sonia refused to enter politics after a suicide bomber assassinated her husband in 1991. But she did that reluctantly in 1997 when the Congress was in shambles, and soon became its president.

She has come a long way since then. She is today a good speaker, in Hindi included, has firmly put her stamp on the party and has come to be accepted across the political spectrum, including by those who once loathed her.

In TV interviews before the election, her daughter Priyanka Vadra said that she admired her mother for her political evolution and thought she was doing a wonderful job.

“I really admire her evolution,” Priyanka said, referring to her mother as a “shy” and “simple” person by nature, and not an enigma as the media made her out to be.

Her foreign origin became a major talking point in 1999 but ebbed after she led the Congress to electoral victory in 2004. Sangma’s move to shake hands with her signals the U-turn of her most vocal critic.

A Communist leader who did not want to be identified by name admitted that Sonia Gandhi’s acceptability was at an all-time high now, more so after the entry of her son Rahul Gandhi into active politics.

The 2009 Lok Sabha elections also showed that the Congress and its two offshoots, the NCP and Trinamool Congress, command a solid 33 percent of vote share in the world’s largest democracy.

But not everyone agrees that Gandhi’s foreign origin is history.

Said Sheshadri Chari of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the country’s most influential Hindu nationalist group: “The ‘foreign issue’ is no longer relevant only because Sonia Gandhi is herself against staking claim for the post of prime minister. If the Congress goes for a referendum saying she wants to be prime minister, the chances are that people may react differently.”