Even as a puff job, a new book on Sonia Gandhi by London-based NRI broadcast journalist Rani Singh fails to achieve much purpose. An earlier hagiographical exercise by Congress groupie journalist Rashid Kidwai, while being reverentially mundane, at least provided some original stuff on the political hive that Sonia rules as queen bee. Lacking Kidwai’s familiarity with the Congress and access to the party leadership, Singh relies almost entirely on what other authors have said on India’s first family.
The book’s banality may well have been deliberate. Everyone knows how zealously 10 Janpath and the Congress guards the veil of enigma around Sonia. Some years ago, even a party faithful like Kidwai got into trouble when there was an attempt by a global film producer to make a movie on Sonia based on his book. The Congress promptly slapped legal notices on the film’s producer, director and the hapless Kidwai. More recently, party spokesmen bared fangs at a fictionalised romantic account of the Sonia legend by a Spanish writer.
Steering clear from even remotely causing offence to the Gandhi clan or the Congress, Singh’s sanitised eulogy is directed at a foreign readership as an easy Sonia reader. Keeping things simple for foreigners is no doubt helped by the author’s genuine disconnect with India and its politics—she refers to ‘aam aadmi’ as mango man! Singh is obviously very well-networked with global political celebrities, garnering a foreword by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and praise from Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state. But it didn’t stop reviewers in global publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist in disparaging her cloying and simplistic account of one of the most powerful women in the world today.
It is a shame that the remarkable personal saga of Sonia and the crucial role she has played so far in contemporary Indian politics has not yielded a worthier appraisal. As books on other political luminaries in India, both living and dead, show, there seems to be no tradition of critically evaluating them without deference bordering on sycophancy. It is ludicrous, for instance, that there is not even a single mention in Singh’s book about the Quattrochis, one of the earliest friends of Sonia in New Delhi—an association which caused so much grief later to both her and her husband Rajiv.
Even if one were to leave aside the salacious rumours of scam and scandal swirling around the lady, surely she deserves a more substantive political analysis. For someone with an intense personal distaste for the rough and tumble of Indian politics, who nevertheless almost single-handedly has kept the country’s oldest and largest party afloat over the past decade, is by itself a momentous achievement. The importance of being Sonia was perhaps never so well illustrated as in recent weeks: the entire party and government had fallen at her feet to rescue them from the deepening political crisis, ignoring her need to recuperate from a debilitating surgery.
Yet, Sonia’s dogged denial of her own political potential, choosing instead to remain in the shadows and push her son Rahul into the limelight, remains one of the great paradoxes of Indian politics. By failing to further investigate such a complex personality, Sonia Gandhi’s apologists actually end up diminishing her.