When a hesitant Sonia Gandhi took her first early steps in Indian politics, she made it a point to dress like her formidable mother-in-law, whose bullet-riddled body she had cradled on that terrible day in 1984. Indira Gandhi is embedded in our history—and all our collective memories—as the enigmatic leader who transformed the nation and the nature of our politics. She also left us with the contemporary world’s most durable political dynasty.
Indira Gandhi atop the podium at a Congress function in Shimla in the early ’70s
Twenty-six years after Indira’s assassination and 19 years after she lost husband Rajiv, Sonia is beginning to create her own legacy. Her undiluted support for the Women’s Reservation Bill that passed its first hurdle in the Rajya Sabha last week is testimony to that. There is little doubt that the reluctant male political class within the Congress would have found some pretext to torpedo the bill if Sonia had not been so firm. In a TV interview later, Sonia showed a little gentle humour: “When some party MPs came to congratulate me and said they were happy, I asked, sachmuch (really)!”
True, leadership is a test of nerves. Sonia still dresses like Indira in those elegant handloom sarees with high-backed blouses. But she’s a very different sort of personality. Indira will always fascinate as the ruthless leader who fought, was attacked, and who fought back even more fiercely. She took on powerful men within her own party, the maharajas and maharanis in their little fiefdoms, the Opposition that she callously threw into jail during the Emergency. Indira fought tooth and nail to keep her prime ministership. Sonia simply sacrificed high office to reach new heights.
Indira biographer Inder Malhotra (Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political History) recalls a conversation when she admitted to having overdone things in the course of the Emergency. As Malhotra puts it, “She said she was conscious that she may destroy her father’s great legacy and that is why she restored democracy.” That was Indira the leader but also a daughter, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter. There was also Indira the lonely autocrat. He recounts another instance when she told a leading journalist who asked her about the state of the party: “Where is the party? I am the party.” She wallowed in the cult of personality and encouraged slogans like ‘Indira is India/India is Indira’.
Also, some would argue that Indira did not have the instincts of a democrat that not just calls for consensus but power-sharing. Instead, she nurtured a coterie whose members wielded excessive power. An Opposition politician who has survived the reigns of both the Gandhi women says that possibly because of her western sensibilities, Sonia keeps a distance from corrupt or controversial figures.
Where’s my plate Indira with Sonia, Sanjay and Rajiv sitting down for dinner at her residence on 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi
It certainly goes to her credit that she does not have henchmen like Indira did. Her ambitions appear to be for her children. Indira too had great ambitions for son Sanjay Gandhi but he was used as chief henchman to perpetuate her reign. His excesses during the Emergency are a matter of public record. Sonia, on the other hand, does not appear to seek power for herself but plays the role of keeper of the Nehru-Gandhi torch that will be passed on to her son. She also cuts a more maternal figure than Indira ever did. Dynastic politics has something inherently undemocratic built into it. Yet there is no indecency that Rahul or Priyanka have ever perpetuated on the nation in the manner of their infamous uncle. They come through as rather earnest young people.
So, is Sonia perhaps smarter than Indira? Inder Malhotra says she has many admirable qualities “but I don’t think she is smarter, although she has certainly turned out smarter than people expected her to be”. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who was one of the Congressmen closest to Indira, jokes: “You must never ask if a mother-in-law is better than her daughter-in-law. It only creates trouble.” But on a more serious note, he says: “I don’t think any politician I have known has made smarter moves than Indira. I think Sonia has learnt from Indira’s experiences...and any politician who can run the Congress for so many years without a major disaster is certainly not a fool.”
At one level, the comparison is unfair as Indira was prime minister for over 15 years and Sonia has consistently refused office. But for the past six years, she has left her imprint on India. Right-wing commentator Swapan Dasgupta articulates his views in term of their policies and personalities: “Indira was ruthless. Sonia is a jholawali!” He elaborates the classic right-wing critique of both: “Indira was guided by a very narrow, self-serving, doctrinaire approach that led to nationalisation of banks, abolition of privy purses, overbureaucratisation and an exaggerated tilt to the Soviet Union. Sonia’s primary motivations are goody-goody, NGO-type.”
Indira may have fought many great battles but Sonia has had to surmount many more hurdles. She has adroitly found a position in power by being out of power, something that Indira could never have contemplated. Says sociologist Dipankar Gupta: “Sonia has kept the engine cool whereas it was always overheated during Mrs Gandhi’s time. Certainly in the manner in which she shaped Indian democracy Indira has had a greater impact, both negative and positive. But Sonia is now shaping her legacy in a very different style. Sanjay Gandhi was a nightmare for the people. Rahul, in contrast, is being promoted in a more graceful manner. These are critical differences.”
Indira was charismatic, brilliant, ruthless. Sonia is softer, gentler, kinder. She may never be the fascinating leader that Indira was with all her triumphs and losses, victories and defeats. Indira perhaps had her greatest moment after winning the Bangladesh war when she was hailed as Goddess Durga by none other political opponents like Vajpayee.
Sonia also reigns in a different time and age. The greatest drama associated with her involved her renunciation of political office in 2004. Women’s reservation is the big gamble on which she has staked her government’s survival and her own reputation. If it passes as she has promised it will, it stands to transform Indian democracy much in the manner her mother-in-law did in so many ways. It is now up to Sonia to navigate the legislation through the Lok Sabha. She has certainly evolved into the lady with a quiet determination.
Smarter than Indira (Mar 22)? No chance. Without the original Mrs G’s crafty machinations, Sonia and son would not be wielding the power they do now. Sonia’s but a poor clone—a simulacrum—of Indira. As for reservation for women, it’s more drama than serious intent. There’s no way the 15-year cap will hold. In 15 years, there will be more drama and demonstration on the streets and the bill will be extended indefinitely—like all ‘reservation’. Priya Madhavan, Rochester
A nation’s leaders must be judged not on the grounds of contemporaneous events and reactions but from the heights of history. Sonia restored inner party democracy and unlike Indira now claims the Congress party and PM-ship not as a dynastic legacy but as one to be gained through commitment to the service of the people. In this context, though I am a Congress-baiter, I salute the self-abnegation of Sonia Gandhi and consider her an ideal and shrewd strategist far above her mother-in-law. S.M. Kompella, on e-mail
Sonia is smarter, yes, if being smarter means more humane, considerate, accommodative and persuasive. Less, if it means being dictatorial, despotic and manipulative. Rakesh Agrawal, Dehradun
Indira and Sonia are poles apart. Sonia at least is trying to undo some damage by establishing democratic institutions and purging corruption and criminalisation from politics. Richa Jayal, Dehradun
What differentiates Indira from Sonia is what makes IG the most memorable icon of post-independent India. S. Jafri, Kheri, UP
After Rajiv’s assassination, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was left dangling by a thin thread. Sonia was a foreigner, a political novice, a woman and a Catholic. All she had was the Gandhi name. That’s been enough. Alastair Murray, Panchkula
Does anyone really care whether Sonia is smarter than Indira? It’s precisely because of your persistence with non-issues that I’m giving up on your magazine. Mr Mehta, I suggest you personally (not the magazine) reinvent yourself. You seem utterly jaded, all because of the circles you move in. Anand Pandya, Mumbai
Some learn from their own mistakes and some from the mistakes of others. Sonia is among the second. While Indira was more dynamic and prone to mistakes, Sonia is quietly calculating. Indira Gandhi was more heart, Sonia is more head. As a leader, Indira inspires awe. Sonia Gandhi is just treading on measured lines. Angarag, Guwahati
Sonia is like Sachin Tendulkar who is at his best when he is not the team captain. S. Vasudev, Chennai
India has historically been ruled by royal dynasties and the Nehru-Gandhi family is simply the latest avatar of the Indian royal family, further proof if needed that India is not by nature a democratic country. Ali, Panchkula
Your cover story is a fitting reply to those critics who questioned Sonia’s capability on account of her Italian origins. Deenadayal, on e-mail
We are fed up of this Congress bhajan. Last week, it was Manmohan; now it’s Madam. Don’t you feel ashamed? People want change; change in the policies; change in thinking; change in the politics of this country. It’s a useless government, useless Sonia and useless PM and, yeah, useless media as well. Kiran Voleti,Chennai
It’s like olden times, a king’s court and paid jesters to sing his praises. Now they are doing it in the name of professional journalism. Satish Mayya, Dubai
Oh, how sweet! No visible blessed cross or rosary. C.P. Narendran, Nagpur
Sonia’s only qualification is being the widow of an ex-PM. She is doing a fine job, but only in controlling these gullible, lethargic Indians. We are still ruled by a white lady who till not long ago was holding on to her Italian passport. When will India get true independence? Rama, Sydney
Sonia, with her concern for the people of India, is reaping rich benefits, din doguni raat chowguni. Syed Alfatah Manzoor, Bangalore
I’m not even sure what qualifications Sonia has to be the leader of one billion people. She was put there by the machinations of the Indian and international corporate world. Tamanna Nipa, New York
How could you miss one of Sonia’s key achievements, the ‘nationalisation of the media’? Mahesh Adhav, Thane
Paid News at its best. S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
Nothing succeeds like success. No matter how much Sangh supporters cry their hearts out, Sonia Gandhi has successfully checkmated the Sangh parivar. After the Sangh mole P.V. Narasimha Rao and the bungling mamaji had weakened the Congress, everyone had written off the party. It was Sonia who revived it single-handedly. And we are still waiting for Sushma Swaraj to shave her head as she had promised. Kishore Dasmunshi, Calcutta
The women’s reservation bill was first introduced by the H.D. Deve Gowda government in 1996. A Left MP from Bengal, Geeta Mukherjee, first conceptualised it. It was the BJP which as a party first supported the bill. Sonia had not even joined politics then. Why give undue credit to her? Arun R., Bangalore
It is the BJP which stood up with the government in introducing the women’s bill in the Rajya Sabha. I don’t know why the whole media is now praising Sonia for this. Mrs G is now saying that this bill was Rajiv’s dream. Then, pray, why didn’t Rajiv introduce this bill during his tenure? He had two-thirds majority during his time, didn’t he? And why did the Congress not support the nda when this bill was introduced by them earlier? Krishna, Hyderabad
Nothing is nearer the truth than your assertion that Sonia Gandhi has proved better than her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi. I wish her success. Maj S.S. Khosla (Retd), Ludhiana
Sonia Gandhi may not be as astute and shrewd a politician as her mother-in-law, but her faith in the leaders she chooses has helped her get a grip on the party. Moreover, she’s not power-hungry, like Indira Gandhi, who always worked in an arbitrary manner. Manoj Parashar, Greater Noida
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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