Tuesday, March 23, 2004

a reluctant heir

Sonia: A biography, by Rasheed Kidwai, Penguin India (December 2003). Hardcover. ISBN: 0670049557. Price US$8.8, 256 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in March 2004).

When journalist Rasheed Kidwai set out to write an unauthorized biography of Sonia Gandhi, many were not optimistic about his chances. The Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is notoriously tightlipped with the media, and she is hardly likely to be any more friendly to a biographer - always seen here as hagiographer or character assassin. But Kidwai was not dissuaded. If anything, the difficulties he would face in gathering material for his book gave him new inspiration to write it. Though the president of India's illustrious Congress Party had scores of sycophants and legions of critics, nobody had managed "an objective evaluation of her life".

Without a doubt, Sonia is one of the most intriguing figures in Indian political life. Like many of the more appealing public personalities, she became part of Indian history accidentally, and with some reluctance, as a victim of circumstance. When she married Rajiv Gandhi - no relation to Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi - in 1968, the scion of the Congress party's hereditary dynasty claimed to have no interest in following in the footsteps of his mother Indira Gandhi and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru (both premiers). Rajiv was a commercial pilot, and more than happy to leave the political wrangling to his brother, Sanjay. Nevertheless, Sonia's entrance into the political family required her to remake herself as an Indian bahu, or daughter-in-law, deferent and traditional. And when her husband entered politics in 1984, winning the prime minister's post by a landslide after the assassination of his mother, Indira, Sonia was forced fully into the limelight. She tried to keep away from politics and lead a normal life during her husband's term as premier, but this was a decision that would come back to haunt her, as it founded her image as "an inscrutable person, constantly tense, aloof and cold".

Kidwai's biography deals primarily with the period of Sonia's life leading up to her selection as the Congress party president, several years after Rajiv was assassinated in 1991. As a cub reporter with a Congress-allied paper, Kidwai was one of the few journalists who stuck by the then-lackluster widow for the months following her husband's death. During that period, Kidwai said in a telephone interview, Sonia never discouraged Congress leaders from coming and meeting her, so "although she didn't join politics, she became a sort of listening post". Knowing the leader from these days, Kidwai offers an interesting insight into her personality and motivations - which are still mostly unknown, even as she mounts her second run for prime minister against incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which forms the lead party in the ruling coalition.

"One needs to look at it in a very human way," Kidwai says. "She came from a far away place - she didn't come from Rome, she was in a very small place in Italy. Indians know a lot about the UK and English people know a fair amount about India, but Italy is very far from us. Her family knew very little about India. Her father was very opposed to this marriage. Her father died in 1988 without ever visiting India, even when Indira died or the birth of Priyanka and Rahul [Sonia's children]." With all this distance in the background, Kidwai says, when the Congress offered her the mantle of leadership, it came as a shock. She was still grieving for her husband, and suddenly she was thrust into a world of Machiavellian intrigues, with everyone seeking to use her to further their own ambitions.

While it does get bogged down in the details of the petty rivalries and backroom deals of the Congress party, this section of Kidwai's biography, which comprises the bulk of the book, also provides an excellent history of the woes that have brought the once unassailable political party into its present disarray. Kidwai traces how, without a Nehru or Gandhi to lead them, rival factions nearly split the Congress on several occasions, until finally the cabal of leaders prevailed on Sonia to take charge as leader. Not surprisingly, it was a compromise destined for trouble, as many saw Sonia as a neophyte they could turn to their advantage, but it did prevent a schism. Today, though, many blame Rajiv's widow for the Congress' failure to defeat the BJP, forgetting to credit her with arresting its precipitous decline.

Kidwai's recapitulation of Sonia's achievements is useful. Along with holding together her fractious supporters, he also credits the Congress party president for the elimination of "black" or untraceable money from the party's finances, the steadfast support of a bill that would allot a quota of seats in the parliament to women and a new, more democratic operating style. The latter move - a change in demeanor from the autocratic methods of Indira and Rajiv, who ushered in and shunted out state chief ministers as a matter of course - has helped her to marshal her troops and makes it very unlikely that a leader will emerge to oppose her within the party, despite some grousing that the Congress should not be led by a foreigner.

But for all Kidwai's skill as political analyst, the biography suffers from an impersonal feel, perhaps because he was denied regular access to his subject. The portrait that emerges is that of a political leader, as Kidwai concerns himself chiefly with Sonia's political choices as he attempts to sketch out her ideology. And while that may prove useful to Indian voters (and journalists) as the Congress president ramps up her campaign for national elections in April and May, it gives the book a dry, academic tone. Just as Sonia's stern face hasn't endeared her to the public as India's Jackie Kennedy - whose trials are in many respects paralleled by her own - this serious biography is likely to hold the interest only of scholars and committed policy wonks.