“Soniaji,” says the spokesman of the committee, “I want you to know that the Congress Working Committee (CWC), meeting under the presidency of Narasimha Rao has elected you president of the party. The election was unanimous. Congratulations.”
Sonia stares at them impassively, more than a dozen senior leaders who have come to convince her. Is grief not pure and sacred? They have not even allowed her to dry her tears for the death of her husband. Incapable of smiling, she does not have the desire or strength to pretend she is honoured by the party’s decision.
“I cannot accept. My world is not politics, as you already know. I do not wish to accept.”
“Soniaji, I don’t know if you realize what the committee is offering you. It is offering you absolute power over one of the largest democratic organizations in the world. It’s offering you the chance to lead this great country. Above all it’s offering you the chance to take on the inheritance of your husband so that his death is not in vain.”
“I don’t think this is the right time to talk about this.”
“The CWC has deliberated for many hours before making this proposal to you. I can assure you that we have thought deeply about it. You will have a free hand and will be able to count on our full support. We ask you to continue the family tradition. It is your duty as a good daughter of India.”
“You are the only one who can fill the void Rajiv has left,” adds another.
“India is a very big country,” Sonia replies. “I can’t be the only one out of a billion.”
“But you are the only Gandhi.”
Sonia looks up, as though she was expecting that argument.
“Not counting your children, of course.”
“My children are still very young, and neither are they interested in politics.”
“It is not a small thing to be named Gandhi in India,” adds another.
“I know what you mean,” Sonia interrupts him. “It’s a name that carries an obligation, but also damns the bearer. Just look at what has happened.”
“Look… You are the heir of this photo.”
One of them points to a photo on a side table next to the sofa. It is in a silver frame, and shows Indira, as a child, sitting by the Mahatma.
“Thank you very much, really, for thinking of me for that position. It is a great honour, but I do not deserve it. You know that I hate fame. Besides, I do not belong to the direct family, I’m just the daughter-in-law.”
“You married an Indian, and you know that here a daughter-in-law becomes part of her husband’s family when she gets married… You have observed all our customs. You are as Indian as anyone. Look at this photo… isn’t the sari that you wore on your wedding day, the one Nehru spun while he was in jail?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m a foreigner.”
“The people don’t care where you were born. You wouldn’t be the first woman of foreign birth to be president of the Congress party,” interrupts the third man. “Remember that Annie Besant, one of the first leaders of the party and the first to lead it at a national level, was Irish. The idea isn’t so crazy.”
“Those were different times. I’m too vulnerable to take on that post. Can you imagine the attacks from the Opposition? They would use the people against me, and it would be a disaster for everyone.”
“Soniaji, we are making you an unconditional offer,” says the eldest man, an astute politician known for his skill in manipulation, and who seems like he is about to pull something out of his sleeve.
“Perhaps the most important thing for you is that you will once again enjoy the highest level of protection, just as when Rajiv was prime minister.”
“I’m sorry, but you have knocked on the wrong door. I have no ambition for power, I’ve never liked that world, I feel uncomfortable in it and I hate being the centre of attention. Rajiv didn’t like it, either. If he went into politics it was because his mother asked him to. Otherwise he would still be an Indian Airlines pilot. He would probably still be alive today and we would be very happy… I’m very sorry, but don’t count on me.”
“You are the only one who can prevent the collapse of the party. And if the party breaks up, it is very likely that the whole country will fall to pieces. What has kept India united since independence? Our party. Who guarantees the values that enable all the different communities to live together in peace? The Congress party. Since we have been out of power, look how the old demons have gained ground: communal and religious hatred, the separatist aspirations of so many states… The whole country is falling apart, and only you can help us to save it. You have prestige and the people love you. That is why we have come in person… to appeal to your sense of responsibility.”
“Responsibility? Why does it have to be this family that pays a constant tribute to the country with the blood of its members? Hasn’t it been enough with Indiraji and Rajiv? Do you want more?”
“Think about it, Madam. Think about Nehruji, about Indiraji, about Rajivji… Your family is as closely linked to India as a vine round the trunk of a tree. Without your family, we are nothing.
Without you, there is no future for this great party. This is the message we have come to bring you. We know that these are difficult times, and we beg your forgiveness for interrupting your grief, but do not abandon us. Do not throw so much sacrifice and struggle overboard. You have the torch of the Nehru-Gandhi family in your hand. Do not let it get extinguished.”
Words, words, words… Politicians always found arguments and excuses to talk about the only thing that interests them: power. Because she has lived so many years in the shadow of two prime ministers, Sonia knows the score. She can imagine the desolation of all the candidates who were going to stand in the elections and who, today, were left without a leader. The murder of her husband had shattered the dreams of many people, not only his family. She can imagine the conjecturing, the manoeuvres, the backstabbing, the trickery of all those who are fighting to succeed Rajiv in the party. A lot was at stake and that is why, without wasting a second, the big fish have come to pay their respects to her. They are not thinking about her as a human being, even in these dark hours, but as an instrument for holding on to the reins of power. Power cannot bear a vacuum – it was time to jockey for positions within the party.
Sonia had learned from Rajiv and Indira to keep the politicians at bay, to not allow them to use her. But they were cunning and thought that Sonia would end up giving way, if not for herself, then for her children, to keep the family name alive, because power was a magnet from which it is impossible to escape. Do the Vedas not say that even the gods cannot resist flattery?
The next day, Sonia sends a letter to the party: “I am deeply moved by the trust placed in me by the Working Committee. But the tragedy that has struck my children and myself does not allow me to accept the presidency of this great organization.” This is a shock to the faithful, who cannot accept her rejection and decide to continue pressurizing her with all the means at their command. Every morning, party sympathizers demonstrate in front of her home, a colonial building located at number 10, Janpath, in Lutyen’s Delhi. They carry posters and shout slogans, “Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe; Soniaji for president.” Sonia, annoyed, asks her husband’s secretary, Vincent George, to get rid of the demonstrators, to put an end to this spectacle. Let them look for another successor, she thought. My family has done enough already.
For Sonia, The Varsity was a real revelation, and some comfort for her poor stomach. It was the closest thing to home-cooking she had tried since she had come to Cambridge. She soon became fond of the mezze, that included bread dipped in tarama, a creamy paste made out of fish roe and lemon, skewers of barbecued meat, or the house speciality, roasted lamb that melted in your mouth like butter. She also liked the atmosphere there. You could go to eat by yourself at The Varsity and not feel lonely. She must have passed a man with a slight limp who was always weighed down by books. He was researching cosmology at the university and years later would acquire worldwide fame. This was Stephen Hawking, who was also a regular at The Varsity.
Another man who frequented the place would also leap to international renown for other reasons. Sonia had noticed him several times – he would often occupy a long table near hers with a group of noisy students. “He stood out amongst the boys. He was striking in both looks and manners,” Sonia would say. “He was not as boisterous as the others; he was more reserved, more gentle. He had big black eyes and a wonderfully innocent and disarming smile.”
A few days later, while Sonia was having lunch with a Swiss friend at a corner table upstairs, she saw him approach,
accompanied by Christian von Stieglitz. After the usual exchange of greetings and jokes, Christian said to her, “Let me introduce you to my friend. He’s from India and his name is Rajiv.”
They shook hands. “As our eyes met for the first time,” Sonia would say, “I felt my heart pounding.”
Rajiv had been watching her throughout lunch, captivated by her beauty.
“Do you like her?” Christian had asked him. “She’s Italian, I know her.”
“Well, introduce me to her.”
Christian was surprised, because Rajiv was rather reserved.
“The first time I saw her,” Rajiv would say, “I knew she was the woman for me.”
That same afternoon, the three of them, accompanied by another friend of Sonia’s, decided to go to Ely, a town a little away from Cambridge known for its superb Romanesque cathedral built inside the walls of a Benedictine monastery. They went in Christian’s old blue Volkswagen, the roof of which looked as if it had chickenpox scars. The person responsible for this strange appearance had been Rajiv: he had turned it over twice when he went out for a drive. Driving was one of his passions. As they had no money to take it to a paint and body repair shop to have it fixed, they had to straighten out the roof by kicking it. Besides, the Beetle was the dream of any student because it meant having a private means of transport to escape from routine and discover the country at will.
Nothing special happened on the trip to Ely, and yet it was the most special one Rajiv and Sonia made together in all their lives. The one they would never forget. It was a rain-free afternoon, and it looked as though the rays of sunlight caressed the moss on the walls and lit up the black slate roofs that were slick from the humidity. Ely was a marvellous town known for having the greatest collection of medieval buildings still in use in England.
A magical place, where it was easy to lose oneself among the old houses and ancient gardens, where they enjoyed spectacular views over the English countryside from the top of the towers. Christian, who knew it well, acted as guide and showed them the prettiest and most romantic corners, like a magician pulling wonders out of his hat. It was a quiet afternoon, when Rajiv and Sonia talked little, allowing themselves to be lulled by a feeling of fulfillment that seemed to overcome them. “The love between Rajiv and Sonia began right there, in the cathedral gardens, at that precise moment. It was something immediate. I never saw two people connect like that, and forever. From that moment until the day he died, they became inseparable,” Christian would recall later.
Can love arise in such an instantaneous, almost insolent way? When Rajiv took her hand as they were walking in the shade of the ancient walls of the cathedral, Sonia had no strength to pull it back. That warm, soft hand transmitted a feeling of immense, profound safety and pleasure. She could not pull her hand away.
It was winter and the road glistened in the rain. They had travelled to London in Rajiv’s battered old Volkswagen. As they entered the city, Sonia had a panic attack. Suddenly, the prospect of attending a reception at the Indian embassy and meeting her boyfriend’s mother in unfamiliar surroundings terrified her. What am I going to do there? A flood of questions, some serious, others trivial, swirled inside her head. How should I address her? Will I be suitably dressed?What must I say to her? What if she looks down on me? What if she’s aggressive towards me?
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Rajiv kept telling her.
All at once, it seemed that the time spent in Rajiv’s company had been just a dream, one that was about to fall apart. She felt she wasn’t ready to meet his mother. Also, such a meeting meant becoming even more involved, and how could she do that if her own parents had been so against their relationship?
“But they are aware of it, your father has given permission…
Are you pulling out now?”
Rajiv did not understand at all. Sonia was frightened.
“Sonia, we’ve arranged this, they’re expecting us …”
“I’m sorry, I’m not going. I can’t.”
Sonia was flustered and Rajiv’s efforts to calm her down were not working, so he had to call his mother and invent an excuse to cancel the meeting.
They put the meeting off for a few days later, until Sonia had regained her confidence. It was still a difficult situation for Sonia, but she was determined to do the right thing and do it well. Her legs trembled as she walked up the stairs of the Indian ambassador’s residence where Indira and her best friend, Pupul Jayakar, who had helped her organize the tribute to Nehru, were staying. The two friends were still reveling in their previous night’s outing. After a reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and that of other beat generation poets, they had ended up at 1 a.m. in a Spanish restaurant eating tapas and watching flamenco dancing. On their return, they had found the ambassador extremely worried; he was about to call the police because he thought something had happened to them.
Indira received them in her room – Sonia found herself facing a fragile-looking woman dressed in an elegant silk sari. In those dark, almond-shaped eyes, she saw Rajiv’s. Her hair, pulled back in a bun, left a thick lock of white hair visible over her forehead, in spite of her being only forty-eight years old. That carefully groomed streak of white hair, which was so a part of her identity, lent more elegance to her. She had a charming smile, delicate manners, and a prominent nose that she tried to hide with makeup. She had once confessed to her friend Pupul that she always wanted to have a nose job.
“I found myself face to face with a perfectly normal human being,” Sonia would say, “warm and welcoming. She did everything possible to make me feel at home. She spoke to me in French knowing I was more fluent in it than in English. She wanted to know about myself, my studies.” Rajiv must have told his mother something about how nervous she was, because Indira told her that “she, too, had been young, terribly shy, and in love, and she understood me perfectly.”
Sonia, relaxed now, enjoyed that first meeting, which ended in the most familiar way possible. The young couple had to attend a student party, and Sonia asked if she could change into her evening dress in a room in the embassy. But as soon as she went out, she tripped, and the heel of her shoe ripped the hem of her dress. “Rajiv’s mother,” Sonia would later recall, “in the calm fashion, which I was to observe at close quarters later, took out a needle and black thread and proceeded matter-of-factly to stitch up the hem. Wasn’t that exactly the sort of thing my own mother would have done? All the small doubts that had remained vanished, for the moment at least.”
Sonia left him to rest and arranged to pick him to take him to dinner at her parents’ home. Meanwhile, she went to the annual alumni meeting at her school in Giaveno. “I remember that day as if it were yesterday,” Sister Giovanna Negri would say. Sonia was twenty. After the meeting of fellow classmates, Sonia announced that she was leaving.
“Why don’t you stay and have dinner with us?” Sister Giovanna said to her. “You’ve been away in England for a long time and we’ve hardly seen you.”
“I can’t stay,” Sonia replied. “I have a guest coming for dinner tonight.”
“And who is it?” asked Sister Giovanna, joking.
Sonia blushed, displaying the dimples in her cheeks. In the end, she let it out: “My boyfriend.”
“Your boyfriend? What a surprise! Tell me all about him…
Who is he?”
Sonia was reluctant to answer, which sharpened the nun’s curiosity even more.
“He’s Indian…” she said shyly.
“Indian?” the nun repeated in astonishment.
Sonia put a finger to her lips so she would lower her voice.
Then she said, almost in a sigh, “He’s the son of Indira Gandhi.”
Dinner with her family was a little like the Italian version of the film Guess Who is Coming for Dinner starring Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. Except that this was reality. The reactions of Stefano Maino to Rajiv were similar to and Spencer Tracy’s to Sidney Poitier in the movie. Rajiv talked about his studies. He had just obtained his certificate as a private pilot and was hoping to gain his commercial license in a year-and-a-half. He wanted to find a job as soon as possible. He had a reason for it. “I have come with a very serious proposal,” he told Stefano Maino. “I have come to tell you that I want to marry your daughter.”
Sonia was dumbstruck. She was also acting as translator between her father and Rajiv. On hearing this, her nervous mother’s hands trembled as she placed drinks on the coffee table in front of the sofa. The patriarch remained cordial, but firm: “I have not the slightest doubt as to your sincerity and honesty,” he told Rajiv, looking at Sonia indicating that she should continue translating. “I only need to look you in the eye to see what you are like. I do not doubt you. All my doubts have to do with my daughter. She’s too young to know what she wants…” Sonia looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. “Quite frankly, I don’t think she’ll be able to get used to living in India. The customs are too different.”
Rajiv suggested that Sonia should go there for a short holiday. He explained the idea that she should first go alone, before he arrived, so that she could judge for herself. But Stefano was categorically opposed to the idea.
“Until she is over twenty-one, I cannot let her go.”
He was a hard nut to crack, and Sonia knew but she could not let the meeting degenerate. Her father’s silences could be cut with a knife. The man was as immovable as a rock, but he made one small concession. “If at that time, you still feel the same toward each other, I will let her go to India, but that will be in a year’s time, when she is of age,” he said. Then he turned to his wife and added, “If things work out badly, she won’t be able to reproach me for helping to ruin her life.”
But Stefano still believed and hoped with all his heart that things would get back to normal, and that in view of the difficulties she would face, Sonia would throw in the towel. He was tormented by the idea of losing his daughter.
Indira was surprised when she heard that Sonia was prepared to stay and that they wanted to get married soon. The couple had met exactly three years ago in Cambridge. They had complied with all the deadlines set, they had done everything they had been told to do, and now the moment had come to make the decision. Indira was aware that Sonia’s arrival had caused a minor stir in New Delhi’s social circles, although neither Sonia nor Rajiv had sought that kind of attention, rather the opposite. Because of who Rajiv was, there was a lot of conjecture about his choice of wife, especially as she was a foreigner. Delhi society was conventional and small – it seemed as if everyone knew each other. Most praised Sonia’s beauty, but others alluded to her lack of pedigree: “She’s a nobody” or criticized her way of dressing, “She wants to attract attention.” Inevitably, there was jealousy as well. “What can that boy see in her? Couldn’t he have found a better girl who is Indian?” Without wanting to, Sonia, by bagging one of the most eligible bachelors in the country, upset a large number of pushy women and their pretty daughters.
“After a week,” Usha Bhagat, Indira’s secretary, would say, “Mrs. Gandhi realized that the two of them were very serious about each other and that it would do no good to wait any longer. The fact that they were going out and about in New Delhi encouraged gossip and the best way to put a stop to it was to let them get married.” But when Rajiv suggested to his mother that they should move to an apartment of their own as soon as he had a job, Indira imposed a single condition on him: “One thing is to get married outside your community. But to live apart is totally against our tradition. They would call us Westerners, they would accuse us of abandoning all our traditions.” Sonia accepted this condition – one that most Western women would have considered inadmissible. But Sonia needed to adapt to India, it could not be the other way around. She would have to live in 1 Safdarjung Road, sharing the same roof as her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law, and his family if he got married one day. Sonia agreed because she was blinded by love. Besides, living with family did not frighten an Italian girl who had grown up in the same town where the extended Maino clan also lived. She also felt that by living with Rajiv’s family, she would adapt to her new country better. She saw the positive side to everything – one of the advantages of being in love.
They set the wedding date to be 25 February – barely a month after Sonia had landed in India. Everything happened very fast, but it was better like that. Indira wanted to avoid her son’s choice of partner becoming a national affair, as had occurred with her own marriage. She told Sonia and Rajiv how the whole country had been against her marriage to Feroze. Thousands of letters and telegrams had flooded Anand Bhawan, some insulting, the majority hostile, and very few congratulatory. People were upset because Feroze and Indira had transgressed two deeply rooted traditions: they had not submitted to a marriage arranged by their families and they were not marrying “within the same faith.” And now history was repeating itself.
“Dear Father and Mother,” Sonia wrote. “I am very happy. I am writing you this letter to tell you that Rajiv and I are getting married. We expect you all here for February 25…” Sonia did not suspect that by the time her letter arrived, the news of her forthcoming wedding would have already been announced by the international media. A journalist from La Stampa in Turin went to visit Mainos. “The parents and sisters are going through an extremely tense time,” he wrote. “The phone does not stop ringing and journalists and photographers are lining up outside the gate.
The father, aged fifty-three, is a man of few words: ‘All my life working to get a future for my daughters… as for the wedding, it’s better to talk about it once it’s over, or it would be better not to ever have to talk about it,’ he declared in a tone that revealed how hurt he was. His wife, Paola, aged forty-five, could not hold back her tears. ‘I’m terrified at the idea of my daughter going to live so far away,’ she said. When asked about the groom, they added, ‘He’s a quiet young man, well brought up and serious,’ and to the question whether they would be going to the celebration, the father replied, ‘Only my wife will go, I have too much work and I cannot waste any time. I will be with my daughter in my thoughts.’ ”
It was going to be a civil wedding, since it could not be a religious one. Indira was against the pomp and wasteful showiness of Indian weddings. She was more concerned about where they would all live – they needed a larger space. The bungalow that the government had assigned Indira when she was named prime minister was too small, so much so that the secretaries and assistants worked under temporary structures in the garden. By giving the new couple a bedroom and a small living room at the back, with an independent way out to the garden, they would be even more cramped together. Indira spoke with her cabinet to have the house extended and soon construction started.
The fuss of the preparations, however simple, suddenly absorbed all the members of the family, especially Sonia. Like most women who were not used to wearing saris, she was afraid she would trip and fall handling the yards of cloth wrapped around her body. She felt like those tourists who paraded around wearing garish saris. But for Sonia, the sari was much more. It marked the first step in the process of her Indianization. Sooner or later, she would have to get used to it.
As the wedding drew nearer, a host of arrangements had to be made – drawing up guest lists, designing the invitation cards, trying out hairstyles and makeup, etc. Sonia’s head was spinning. Deep down, she was wishing it would all be over as soon as possible. Her shyness made her very uncomfortable with all the attention. She was besieged by photographers from the day she stepped out with the family for the first time as Rajiv’s fiancé, to attend a Pierre Cardin fashion show at the Ashok Hotel. Femina magazine reported the event in great detail. Sonia looked very pretty, with her straight hair falling on to her shoulders, covered in a printed silk sari. She sat between Rajiv and Sanjay while she talked to Indira. A photo that suggested perfect family harmony.
On their way out, Sonia answered an insidious question from a reporter: “I am going to marry Rajiv the person, not the son of the prime minister.” It was inevitable that many people shouldsee her as an opportunist, an ambitious woman who had made a big catch. This made her deeply sad and indignant. When another reporter asked her what she thought about staying to live in India, so far from home, Sonia looked up at Rajiv and giving a shy smile, she said, “With Rajiv, I would go to the ends of the earth.”
For the Maino family, India seemed like it was at the other end of the world. There was so much to do and such little time. Eventually only Sonia’s mother, sister, and maternal uncle came to India for the wedding. Her uncle Mario would give away his young niece. They arrived a day before the wedding when the mehendi ceremony was being held at the Bachchan’s house. Although traditionally, the groom was not supposed to attend the mehendi, an exception was made and both Rajiv and his mother were present because they wanted to greet Sonia’s family that had come from Italy. Indira was warm and extremely attentive to Paola, who felt intimidated and was impatient to see her daughter. She looked all over for her. When they pointed her out, she exclaimed in shock: “Mamma mia!”
She almost burst into tears. She could barely recognize her because Sonia’s head was covered by a red-and-purple veil, and she was wearing bracelets and necklaces made out of beautiful jasmine flowers threaded together. Her hands, arms, and feet were covered in mehendi. When she got over her shock at seeing her daughter like this, her mother hugged her. “Thank goodness, your father hasn’t seen you dressed up like this!” she said, full of emotion. Poor Stefano, five thousand miles away, was sad. He confessed to Danilo, his best friend, the mechanic, his fear for Sonia: “She’ll be thrown to the tigers!” How right the former shepherd from the Asiago mountains was.
Young girls immediately surrounded the sister and Paola and offered to paint their hands for them. As they applied the mehendi, they explained the tradition to them: the darker the drawings came out on the bride’s hands, the more love there would be in the marriage. And the longer they took to fade, the longer the passion would last. Paola and the sister looked at the mehendi on Sonia’s hands: they were as black as if they had been drawn in ink.
She was having breakfast in her room when her secretary R.K. Dhawan, knocked on the door. D.P. Dhar, an old friend and advisor of Indira, had died of a heart attack. Dhar was sent to Moscow at the time of the Bangladesh crisis to ensure the backing of the Soviets, and had acted since then as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Another pillar of trust and friendship had gone from her life. Indira went straight to the hospital to comfort his family.
She returned home about midday, and there was more bad news waiting for her. Her secretary informed her that in the previous day’s elections in Gujarat, the Congress party had been beaten by the Janata Front, a coalition of five parties that included sympathizers of JP. She was not too surprised. However, the worrying part was that these results forecast defeats in other state elections. Was it perhaps the beginning of the end? she wondered. Did not all human enterprises follow the same model of evolution as in nature, which is to say a growth stage, a development stage, and then an end? She had tried to make peace with JP, but his Utopian idea of setting up a government without parties was unacceptable because it meant the death of democracy. She had expressed this to him in a meeting arranged in November 1974, but he was a revolutionary who still believed in great, abstract ideas.
“You must agree that the government in Bihar is very corrupt,” said JP in a trembling voice.
“Yes, everybody knows that,” replied Indira.
“Then I insist that you dismiss it and call for fresh elections.”
“I can’t do that. It is a democratically elected government and I have no authority to dismiss it.”
There was no reconciliation between the two. Indira ended up accusing him of having backing from the CIA and the United States to overthrow her, and he told her she wanted to turn India into a satellite of the Soviet Union.
However, at the end of the meeting, JP asked to see her alone, without her advisors. They went into the living room and there, to Indira’s surprise, the man made a gesture of personal kindness, in spite of how bitter their political confrontation was. He handed her an old folder that had belonged to his wife Prabhavati, which contained letters that Indira’s mother, Kamala, had written to her fifty years before in the clamour of the struggle for independence.
“I had them put away since my wife died,” JP told her, “in the hope of giving them to you some day.”
Indira was moved by the gesture of this man who, nevertheless, was determined to destroy her. How strange politics is – she thought – that it allows hatred and love at the same time and in the same person. She felt a pang in her heart when she read those letters that brought her mother back to life, so fragile, always so ill, which now revealed her unhappiness at feeling the contempt of Nehru’s sisters who found her too traditional and religious. She thanked him even though she knew he would keep his promise to intensify his crusade against her.
The third piece of bad news of the day came at 3 p.m. It was Rajiv who got the news that had just come in on the teleprinter.
“The verdict of the Allahabad Court has just come out,” said Rajiv.
“And…?” asked Indira, turning her head slightly, as though she expected the blow she was about to receive.
Rajiv who got the news that had just come in on the teleprinter.
“The verdict of the Allahabad Court has just come out,” said Rajiv.
“And…?” asked Indira, turning her head slightly, as though she expected the blow she was about to receive.
Rajiv read her the text of the sentence. It said that the prime minister had been found guilty of electoral malpractices in the 1971 elections. As a consequence, the result of those elections was invalid. The tribunal gave the Congress party twenty days to take the necessary steps so that the government could continue functioning. Furthermore, it prohibited Indira from holding any public office in the next six years.
Indira sighed and stayed calm. She looked out into the garden. Her grandchildren were playing outside. Everything seemed so normal, except for the black clouds that still threatened to burst. How curious life was. The biggest blow of her career had been struck against her in her birthplace, in the same courts where her grandfather Motilal Nehru had given some of his most brilliant arguments. She turned to her son. “I believe there is no option but to resign. The moment has come,” she said without the slightest trace of emotion.
“Why don’t we go to Italy for a while,” she asked Rajiv, “until things get back to normal?”
Rajiv thought it was an excellent idea and agreed that it would be good for the children. But he was clearly worried.
“How are we going to tell my mother? Can we abandon her at a time like this?”
Sonia remained thoughtful and did not answer him. For the first time, she was afraid – for herself and for the children. The atmosphere had never been so charged.
On 20 June 1975 the party organized a solidarity rally at the Boat Club and it was Sanjay’s idea that the whole family should be together. “It’ll be good for the people to see us all together,” he had said.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t decide for us,” Rajiv spat back at him.
“It’s for Mother’s sake,” his brother answered.
Rajiv and Sonia reluctantly agreed. It was perhaps Sonia’s first political act. Being in front of a crowd of more than a hundred thousand made quite an impression on her. Dressed in a sari, she stood next to Rajiv, Maneka, and Sanjay, behind Indira. From up there, it made her dizzy to think about the vast expanse of her adopted country. So many people, so many beliefs, so many religions… When her mother-in-law turned around to them, Sonia smiled at her. She suddenly saw her in contact with the people she was always talking about, that privileged contact thatjustified all the upsets, which was now not something abstract but utterly real. They were there, in front of her. Sonia was able to see the enormous support of the people, which Indira still enjoyed, and which exceeded by far the mere presence of the supporters lured in by Sanjay. She was moved when she heard her motherin- law tell the crowd that serving the country was the tradition in the Nehru-Gandhi family, and that she promised to go on serving until her last breath. It was the first time that Indira had been seen flanked by her family, and the rally was a great success. Soniarealized how much Indira needed to have her family at her side. No, it was not the moment to abandon her.
JP’s followers too organized demonstrations in the capital and various other cities. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was the first to know from an Opposition leader that they planned to block the entrance to number 1, Safdarjung Road, with hordes of people in order to turn Indira into a prisoner in her own home.
“We’ll camp there day and night,” said the leader. “We’ll force her to resign. She will not survive our movement.”
On the morning of 25 June, Indira called Siddhartha ShankarRay to her office at home. He found her very tense. Her desk was covered with reports from the Intelligence Bureau.
“We cannot allow it,” Indira told him. “I have information that at a rally tonight JP [that he had called at the Ramlila Maidan] is going to ask the police and army to mutiny. It is possible that the CIA is involved. What can we do?”
She continued describing how the country was deep in chaos.
“We have to stop this madness.”
“Are you thinking about a state of Emergency?”
Indira nodded. Actually, she was not seeking advice about what decision to make, because she had already made it the day before. Sanjay had mentioned it to her, but the idea had not come from him but from Bansi Lal, the chief minister of Haryana who had provided him with the land to build the Maruti factory. According to Bansi Lal and Sanjay, there were at least fifty political leaders who had to be ousted from public life. Naturally, the first was JP.
What option did Indira have? Between a dishonourable stepdown and a state of Emergency, she preferred the latter.
“I want to do it all impeccably from the legal point of view,” the prime minister specified.
“Let me study the constitutional aspects. Give me a few hours and I’ll be able to give you clarity,” Ray convinced her.
“Please be quick,” she asked.
Ray came back at 3 p.m. He had spent several hours going over the various clauses of the Indian Constitution.
“Under Article 352 of the Constitution,” he told Indira, “the government can impose a state of Emergency if there is the threat of aggression from outside or internal disorder.”
“JP’s call for the army and police to mutiny is a sufficiently serious threat, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Then, by doing that, they’ve fallen into their own trap.”
“In effect, they’ve handed you on a silver platter the justification you need to suspend parliamentary activity and to impose a state of emergency.”
There was a silence. Indira’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. There was just one thing missing: the signature of the President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed; but he was an ally and Indira did not doubt his loyalty.
With the four-line document that the president signed that same night which ratified the proclamation of a state of
Emergency, the biggest democracy in the world became a virtual dictatorship. The Government of India was now authorized to arrest people without prior authorization, to suspend civil rights and liberties, to limit the right of interference of the courts, and to impose censorship.
N.K. Singh, still waiting for Indira in the hall, was getting more and more nervous. He did not like the spectacle that was being set up around the house. Of all the missions he had been given in his career, this was perhaps the most difficult. Nobody likes to arrest a “goddess”. He was nervous and undecided about what to do. He smiled at Priyanka and Rahul, but the children responded with hostile looks.
Finally, at 8 p.m., Indira appeared, carefully made up, with her hair beautifully combed and dressed in a pretty white sari with a green border. She looked very distinguished. N.K. Singh was astonished: this would be like arresting an elegant grandmother… Furthermore, when Indira came out of the house, she was received with cheers in the garden and a shower of flower petals. At that moment, she turned to N.K. Singh and said: “I want you to handcuff me.” Singh was disconcerted. Now this little grandmother is asking to be handcuffed! he thought in horror.
“I want to leave my home in handcuffs. Haven’t I been arrested?… Well, put the handcuffs on me.”
Sonia, following close behind with Rajiv and Sanjay was just as amazed as N.K. Singh who went off to consult his colleagues.
He came back after a few moments.
“Madam, we are not going to handcuff you.”
“If you don’t handcuff me, I’m not moving from here. I’m staying put.”
“Please, madam, don’t put me in a difficult situation…” he said, embarrassed. “I am not authorized to handcuff you. Please follow me or we’ll have to take you by force.”
In view of the officer’s determination, Indira gave in and followed him, while the crowd threw flowers and cheered her. Before he left the house with Sonia, Rajiv asked Usha to remain at the house and take care of the children. He did not know how soon they would be back.
Before she got into the car, Indira addressed a group of reporters. “I was going to Gujarat to visit some tribal communities tomorrow. I would ask you to please convey my apologies to the people of Gujarat.” When asked about her arrest, she declared: “I have tried to serve our country in the best possible way. The charges against me have no foundation. This is a political arrest.”
The car drove off, preceded by a military jeep and followed by a line of vehicles in which her sons and daughters-in-law, as well as followers and reporters, were travelling. The children were left behind, crying, in the care of Usha. They did not take her to the infamous Tihar jail. Her “prison” was actually a Spartan but relatively clean room in the Gazetted Officers’ Mess at the New Police Lines at Kingsway Camp. With great dignity, she said good-bye to her sons and daughters-in-law at the entrance. She was radiating serenity, because she knew intuitively that by now, the news of her arrest, like a common criminal, was already spreading quickly across the country. She knew that if she could give the impression of being a martyr—the reason why she had asked to be handcuffed—she would win this round. Unaware of these manoeuvres, Sonia was looking at her with great sadness and was making superhuman efforts to hold back her tears. The police officers on guard snapped to attention for Indira as she went into her “prison”. Inside, she was offered food, but she refused it. She was worried about being poisoned. She slept deeply and at dawn she was already dressed, freshly showered, and ready to face the court.
Early in the morning on 23 June the phone rang. It was not a normal time, and Sonia immediately thought it could be a call from India. Her mother confirmed it, on tiptoe and in a whisper, in order not to wake the rest of the family. “It’s a long-distance call… from New Delhi.” Sonia got up, wrapped her robe around her, and went into the living room to answer the phone. Amid all the interference, she recognized the nervous voice of one of her mother-in-law’s secretaries. Now she was certain that it would be very bad news. “Madam… Sanjayji has had an accident…
He’s dead.” Sonia’s mind went blank and she did not hear the hurried explanations the secretary gave her. When she hung up, she was stunned. She went back to their room. Rajiv was stirring. She waited a few moments to tell him, as though she wanted to give him a few more seconds of happiness that she knew, once he was awake, he would not see again.
A few hours later, they were on a chartered flight arranged by Swraj Paul that also picked up Maneka’s mother Amteshwar, sister Ambika, and congress leader V.C. Shukla from London. Each of them had some information about the accident, and during the long flight they were able to piece together what had happened.
Sanjay had crashed at the controls of his latest toy, the Pitts S-2A, which he had acquired thanks to the mediation of Dhiren Brahmachari. At 7 a.m., he had turned up at the New Delhi flying club and had invited a pilot friend, Captain Subhash Saxena, to join him for some acrobatic exercises. Captain Saxena was unwilling to fly with Sanjay because he knew he lacked experience, but in view of his insistence, he ended up agreeing. They were doing loops in the sky and diving over New Delhi for twelve minutes, then they flew over number 1, Safdarjung Road, where he had been talking to his mother barely an hour earlier.
“Be very careful,” Indira had told him. “They tell me you’re very rash.”
“Don’t worry,” Sanjay had answered.
According to a witness, the plane went up into the sky like an arrow and then began a dive as if it were preparing to do a loop, but it could not recover. It crashed in the diplomatic district, on empty land, less than a kilometre from number 12, Willingdon Crescent killing both Sanjay and Captain Saxena.
A month before, the director general of civil aviation, Air Marshal J. Zaheer had informed his superiors that Sanjay persistently violated the security protocol and was therefore putting his life and the lives of others at risk.
“The director of civil aviation told his superior, who agreed to talk to your mother about it, but, for whatever the reason, he did not.”
“If no one did anything, it was out of fear of going against Sanjay, I imagine,” said Rajiv.
Later they would find out what had happened exactly. The report from J. Zaheer had fallen into Sanjay’s hands and he had reacted, in his usual way, by forcing him to take leave without pay. He had replaced him with his second-in-command, G.R. Kathpalia, a malleable man who would not give him any problems. The fact is that Sanjay had died because he had been rash.
Amteshwar, Maneka’s mother, was visibly upset. “A widow at twenty-three… and with a three-month-old baby,” the woman kept saying. In under three years, she had lost her husband and her son-in-law. She had gone from being at the top to being ostracized, and then back to the top again… And now what would happen?
“You have to do all you can to keep the families united,” friends on the flight advised Maneka’s mother. “Now that Sanjay isn’t here, you have to close ranks around Rajiv.”
Sonia’s hair stood on end when she heard that. She was about to shout “No!” loudly, but she stopped herself. She knew they would try to persuade Rajiv to fill the vacuum his brother had left. Sonia knew this would mean the end of their happiness. She was prepared to fight tooth and nail to prevent that from happening.
The plane landed in Delhi at 2 a.m. A wave of intense heat welcomed them. A string of people – ministers, friends, strangers – had filed past the remains throughout the day at the Safdarjung Road home. Indira, very nervous, had been going from one room to another all night long asking if there was any news of Rajiv and Sonia, because subconsciously she was afraid that another misfortune could occur.
Rajiv, Sonia, and the children had already been informed of what they were going to find, but even so the shock of arriving home in those circumstances was terrible for them. When they saw Sanjay’s body lying in a coffin in the living room, among those walls that still seemed to echo with the sound of his nervous, open laughter, Rajiv and Sonia went to pieces. And when Indira saw Rajiv crying disconsolately, she also broke into sobs. Once she recovered her serenity, Sonia observed Indira: her eyes were red and swollen behind her dark glasses, her complexion was ashen, and she walked with a stoop as though she found it hard to stand upright. “Where am I to go after this?” she asked Sonia in a ragged voice. They embraced again and stayed like that in silence a long time. Less than ten days had passed since Indira had set Sanjay up in his first official office, naming him secretary general of the party. Now, suddenly, there was only a dead body lying there: she had been left without her son, without a companion, without an adviser, and without a successor. Then Sonia saw Maneka, whose movements seemed disconnected. She had spent the whole day crying and repeating: “Sanjay, no, please… Anyone but not Sanjay…” Rajiv hugged her and said a few affectionate words to her. Sonia, too, could not hold back the tears when she hugged her. The children, tired and upset, took it all stoically. The distant crying of their cousin, little Feroze, broke the silence.
Sonia immediately set herself to tending to those who were sitting with the body. She helped to place mattresses on the floor so that all the friends and close relatives could rest. She also made sure there was tea for everybody.
After the emotion of seeing them again, Indira told them the details of the funeral that she had organized for the following day. “We’ll have the cremation in Shantivana, next to grandfather’s samadhi.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mummy” Rajiv suggested.“Wouldn’t it be better to have a private, smaller-scale funeral?”
“Perhaps, but Sheikh Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and all the state chief ministers have asked me for a memorable funeral.”
“Sanjay had no official role in the government. It may cause problems if you hold a state funeral. Imagine the protests!”
“I know. But it’s also true that Sanjay had many followers, and I don’t want to disappoint them. It would be like disappointing him.”
Rajiv did not insist.
The cremation took place the next day on the banks of the river Yamuna. It was too close to where the cremation of Nehru, had taken place, and no matter how much Indira refused to acknowledge it, her son did not deserve the same honours as her father. Many saw in this gesture of Indira’s another sign of abuse of power. Again, she had not listened to Rajiv’s advice to choose another place and let herself be led along by the insistence of Sanjay’s friends. She had no strength to fight them and was probably in agreement with them in paying such disproportionate tribute to her son, as if she could compensate a little in that way for her loss.
Rajiv took his brother’s ashes in a copper urn to be buried under a tree in the garden at Akbar Road. On seeing the urn, Indira was unable to control herself and broke into sobs. For the first time, she wept disconsolately and uninhibitedly in public. Rajiv held her. Her pain seemed limitless. Sonia had found out that on the morning of the tragedy Indira had left the hospital where the doctors were patching Sanjay’s body together to go back to the scene of the accident. She had been back twice. Evil tongues said that she had gone back to look for Sanjay’s watch and key-ring because one of the keys was probably for a safe containing ill-gotten wealth. Some said that the watch had the number of a secret account in Switzerland engraved on it. But
The book about Sanjay that Maneka was working on was the battlefield in the relationship between Indira and her. She noticed she was distant and cold, and felt more afraid of her than ever and hardly dared to speak to her. When she had to speak to her, the words would not come out, just like when she first arrived in that house. She only got attention from Indira when she talked about the baby. One day, she finally dared to suggest an idea that hadbeen going around in her head.
“Since I can see you’re so busy, I thought that instead of you writing the foreword, it would be better if Khushwant Singh does it, based on an interview with you. That way you won’t have so much to do.”
Indira stood looking at her for a long time, in one of her silences that did not augur anything good.
“No way,” she said finally. “You should have asked me immediately after Sanjay’s death. I would have had time then to write something. But you didn’t consult me. Now I’m not going to write anything and that man is not going to interview me.”
It was her personal revenge for the article that had so annoyed her. It was also a way of putting her daughter-in-law in her place. The war had started.
Maneka came out of that conversation with her mother-in-law in a terrible state. “If she doesn’t write the foreword, I’ll never speak to her again,” she threatened to anyone who wanted to listen. Then, alone in her room, she started crying. The draft of the book, with photos she had chosen with great care and love, was spread out over her bed. “Why won’t she help me? Isn’t it about her son?” she asked amid tears.
When she had calmed down, Maneka attempted a final approach. She took the book to Indira’s room and left it on her bed. Perhaps, when she saw it, her mother-in-law would think again.
More than six months had gone by since Sanjay’s death, and seeing those pictures again after an exhausting day in Parliament moved Indira deeply. The angelic face that Sanjay had when he was little, the photos of his childhood games, of when he stroked his favourite pet – his tiger, of his toy cars, of his horseback riding with Nehru, of him and Indira hugging each other… all that past that suddenly came rushing back, like a wound reopened, and left her emotionally drained. She did not sleep a wink that night. She told her friend Pupul that the book was well presented, but that she was determined not to write the foreword. “She had erased Maneka from among the people she loved,” Pupul would write, having noticed a symbolic and revealing detail: the door that went into Sanjay’s room was shut and the one that went into Rajiv’s was open. Indira had moved on from one phase of her life and was preparing to start another.
The note of discord was struck by Maneka, who saw with displeasure how her husband’s legacy was snatched away from her by his brother, although she knew perfectly well that she could not have stood for election as she was not of the required minimum age. She now began to make declarations to the press, describing Rajiv as her “indolent brother-in-law, incapable of getting out of bed before ten o’ clock.” The idea was implicit that she, the heir to the Gandhi name and the mother of Sanjay’s only child, was the most suitable person to one day succeed Indira at the peak of power. “How can Rajiv take on his brother’s mantle if he has never liked politics and is married to a foreigner?” she said in public. Maneka was the first to use Sonia’s foreign origins against the family. Rajiv and Indira immediately smelled danger and asked Sonia to finalize the paperwork to acquire Indian nationality, to which she had a right through marriage. She should have done it long before, but she had always put it off out of laziness. In her naïveté, Sonia had always thought it was enough to feel Indian and to follow the customs and rites of society to be Indian. She dressed in Western clothes when she went to visit her family in Italy. In India, she only wore saris or salwar kameezes. But for that, she needed the official sanction of a passport. So one morning she went to the Ministry of Home Affairs and spent several hours filling in papers and replying to questions from courteous civil servants. A few weeks later, she received a letter: “The government of India hereby grants Sonia Gandhi, née Maino, a certificate of naturalization and declares that the aforesaid has the right to all the privileges, rights, and responsibilities of an Indian citizen.” Next, among the papers that accompanied the passport, was the number and address of the polling station where she would have to go to vote.
Maneka succeeded in annoying her mother-in-law further when she spoke out against Rajiv and Sonia. When Maneka showed her the first copy of the book she had written on Sanjay, Indira caused a fuss, claiming that part of the text and the captions of the photos were pernicious and distorted the truth. It could not be published like that.
“But it’s supposed to be launched in three days’ time!”
“You should have shown me the final draft earlier, not at the last minute. You’ll have to postpone the presentation for when the changes have been made.”
“I can’t; it’s all been organized already.”
“I will not allow the book to come out the way it is at the moment.”
Maneka left the room furious and slammed the door.
“Maneka!!” shouted Indira. “Come here immediately!”
Maneka came back. This time she did not look like a frightened puppy. She had the defiant manner of a rebellious teenager. She held her mother-in-law’s gaze.
“Things cannot go on like this, Maneka. I cannot allow your nonsense with the press to go on or for you to publish whatever you like about the family.”
Maneka hesitated between replying or putting up with the reprimand.
Indira bluffed, trying to make her daughter-in-law back down. “If you want to leave this house, it’s up to you,” she told her firmly.
Maneka hesitated at the temptation of using the only weapon she could to strike Indira a lethal blow: taking her grandson away from her.
Indira went on:
“If you carry on like this, our relationship in the future will be as if I had never met you. You choose: that, or go on being friends.”
Maneka clenched her fists and bit her tongue: perhaps this was not the moment to do without such a prestigious relationship. She lowered her eyes and said,“Alright, I’ll delay the launch of the book and I’ll change the captions of the photos.”
Indira breathed a sigh of relief. She was aware that she had won a battle, but she was sure it would not be the last. For the moment, the crisis had been avoided.
Argumentative and persistent, Maneka became expert at tightening the rope. She had become convinced of two things: one, that there was no place for her in the power structure over which Indira presided, and two, that she could eventually become a rival to her mother-in-law. So she decided, on one hand, to redouble her defiant and provocative attitude and, on the other, to develop her own power base by mobilizing Sanjay’s now dethroned supporters. Maneka had agreed to go and give a speech in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh for a group of dissidents of the Congress party, led by an old friend of Sanjay’s, Akbar Ahmed.
Indira was furious. “They’re defying me with a mini-revolt,” she told Pupul Jayakar after Maneka had let her know that she had gained the support of a hundred or so members of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh. Indira sent her a message. “If you go to Lucknow, don’t ever come back to my house.” Maneka withdrew and apologized, but it seemed clear that a confrontation was inevitable.
In an attempt to put things right, Indira took her on a trip to Kenya with Rahul and Priyanka in 1981. But the trip that Maneka would really have liked to make was the one that Rajiv and Sonia made to London for the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Diana Spencer. Indira had sent them to represent her, and also to introduce her possible heir on the international stage. Theirs was a glamorous trip, rubbing elbows with power and the crème de la crème of international society. Maneka, on the other hand, was going off with the children “to see animals”. She began by complaining that she was the only one in the family who did not have a diplomatic passport. She hardly spoke to her nephew and niece on the whole trip and barely answered her mother-in-law when she called her or tried to cheer her up. She kept to herself the whole time, with a long face, because she did not really want to be there. At a reception at the Indian embassy in Nairobi, she was reticent and cold with the other guests, to such an extent that it was embarrassing. She was taciturn, and they did not really know whether she felt bored or if she was simply not interested in anything. Or if she was plotting something. Or all three at the same time.
The one who was plotting was her mother. Something explosive. She was negotiating the sale of Surya magazine to well-known sympathizers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Dr Jinendra Kumar Jain and Sardar S.C. Angre, behind Indira’s back. When India found out, she was furious. The sale of Surya, which ended up going through, was a real provocation. Although it belonged to Maneka and her mother, Indira was fully aware that the magazine had been born and was able to function thanks to her contacts and her influence. Family tension came to a boiling point. For some months, Rajiv had avoided meeting his sister-in-law at home. Now it was clear that Maneka could no longer go on living there.
Seeing that the conflict with Maneka was going to deprive her of her grandson, Indira became very depressed. Of all the betrayals she had been through, she felt that this was the most serious, the most harmful, and the cruellest, because it came from within the family, sacred territory, and it affected the child of her favourite son. The imminence of another crisis, this time a definitive one, drained all her energy. She made a last attempt for her grandson’s sake. She sent Dhirendra Brahmachari, who still visited her from time to time, to negotiate the repurchase of the magazine, at any price, from the new owners. But they refused the offer. Indira was left with no way out. The whole country waited expectantly for the outcome of this live soap opera. Indira was in London, inaugurating the Festival of India, a huge effort on the part of her government to promote cultural, industrial, and commercial exchanges between India and the West. She had wanted Sonia to go with her. A large number of politicians, scientists, personalities from the world of culture, the aristocracy, and the media attended the opening ceremony. Indira was very moved when Zubin Mehta, who was a Parsi like Indira’s husband, conducted the orchestra in playing the national anthems of India and the United Kingdom, and the audience rose to their feet. It had a special meaning because it was the first time the Indian national anthem had been played in London, in the presence of royalty. Sonia too felt proud. Exquisitely dressed thanks to her daughter-in-law’s ministrations, Indira was radiant at the various official receptions and dinners. So much so that it would have been impossible to guess how agitated and anxious she was inside. The messages that came from home informed her that Maneka was prepared to abandon the family home permanently and that she had decided to defy Indira openly.
Maneka had calculated the date very carefully, taking advantage of the fact that Indira and Sonia were away, and that Rajiv was too busy with his work and did not spend too much time at home. The young woman had ignored Indira and had gone to Lucknow, where, in front of her husband’s followers, she made a heated speech, taking great care, however, not to appear to be disloyal to the prime minister. “Long live Indira Gandhi!” “Sanjay is immortal!” said the posters that the organizers of the meeting had put up everywhere. “I will always honour the discipline and reputation of the great Nehru-Gandhi family to which I belong,” Maneka said to end her address.
But that show of loyalty did not soften Indira, who came back from London on the morning of 28 March 1982, determined to be obeyed. When Maneka went to greet her, Indira cut her short:
“We’ll talk later.”
Maneka shut herself in her room and waited for a long time, until a servant knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said Maneka.
The man came in bearing a tray with her food on it.
“Mrs. Gandhi asks me to tell you that she does not wish you to join the rest of the family for lunch.”
“Take it away. I don’t intend to eat in my room just because she says so.”
The man obeyed. An hour later, he came back.
“The prime minister would like to see you now,” he said obsequiously.
Maneka’s legs were shaking as she walked down the corridor. The moment of truth had come, but there was no one in the living room. She had to wait a few minutes, which seemed to go on forever, and during which she started biting her nails again, like when she was a little girl. Suddenly, she heard noises and Indira appeared, furious and walking barefoot, accompanied by Dhirendra Brahmachari, and R.K. Dhawan. She wanted them as witnesses.
Under normal circumstances, Indira would have fought this battle with her usual skill, waiting for the right moment to act. Now, perhaps because the thought of being separated from her grandson clouded her judgement, Indira fell into the trap her daughter-in-law had set for her. Her words could hardly be understood, and yet she could be heard loud and clear when she pointed her finger at her and shouted, “Get out of this house immediately!”
“Why?” Maneka asked, looking innocent. “What have I done?”
“I’ve heard every word of the speech you gave!”
“You gave the okay.”
Maneka said that she had sent it to Indira for approval. And in fact, Rajiv had sent it on to London by telex. Indira had read it but had not answered. She had decided to wait until she got home to give an answer.
“I told you not to speak in Lucknow, but you did exactly what you wanted and you disobeyed me! There was poison in every single one of your words… Do you think I can’t see that? Get out of here! Leave this house right now!” she screamed. “Go back to your mother’s house!”
“I don’t want to go to my mother’s house,” Maneka replied defiantly.
“You will go to her. Since you’ve got together with the riff-raff of this country, to whom you’ve sold the magazine you started thanks to the contacts I got for you, I don’t want to see you again, either you or your mother.”
Maneka started to cry, but added, “I need time to get my things ready.” “You’ve had all the time in the world. You’ll leave here when I tell you. Your things will be sent on to you later. You and your mother are trash!” Indira shouted, completely beside herself.
Maneka went off toward her room, shouting, “I won’t allow you to insult my mother!”
But Indira was determined to throw her out. She could not control herself. All the wrongs accumulated since Maneka had come into the house exploded like the gates of a dam bursting.
“Get out! Get out this instant! And don’t take anything away from this house apart from your clothes!”
Maneka shut herself in her room, and from there she called her sister Ambika to tell her what had happened, so that she could tell the press and get help. Ambika called Khushwant Singh and asked him to send the press to the prime minister’s house.
At about 9 p.m. a crowd of photographers and reporters, including a large group of foreign correspondents, gathered at the entrance of the prime minister’s house. The police, whose reinforcements had been deployed in the surrounding area, did not know who to let in and who not to. So Ambika along with a friend got in without any difficulty, after having visited for eight years. They found Maneka in her room, in floods of tears, piling everything untidily into suitcases. Suddenly, while they were deciding how to proceed, Indira burst into the room: “Get out now! I’ve told you not to take anything with you.”
Ambika intervened: “She won’t go! This is her home!”
“This is not her home,” shouted Indira, with her eyes bulging in fury. “This is the home of the prime minister of India!” And pointing at Maneka, she added, “You can’t bring people in here without my permission.”
Ambika was going to say something, but Indira interrupted her.
“Anyway, Ambika Anand, I don’t wish to talk to you.”
“You have no right to talk to my sister like this!” shouted Ambika, with no intention whatsoever of allowing herself to be cowed. “This is Sanjay’s house and my sister is Sanjay’s wife! So this is her home. Nobody can throw her out.”
What her bitterest enemies had not managed to do, those two sisters did. Indira’s shouts alerted Sonia who ran to tell Rajiv in his office in Akbar Road. Rajiv, along with his cousin Arun Nehru who was helping him those days, tried to control the situation. They asked the security officer N.K. Singh, to kindly throw the sisters out of the house. The man replied cautiously, “Sir, I can only follow that order if I have it in writing.”
Rajiv was ready to sign a written order, but Arun Nehru stopped him.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t sign anything that might later be used by the press against you or the family. Whether you like it or not, Maneka has the right to be in this house. Signing a document to throw her out can only bring you problems.”
Rajiv looked at N.K. Singh, who nodded, totally in agreement with what his cousin had just said.
“It isn’t wise,” his cousin added.
“Okay,” said Rajiv, giving up and looking toward the end of the hallway where, suddenly, a deafening noise arose.
Shut in Maneka’s room, the two sisters planned their strategy and the exact time they would leave. R.K. Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari had to act as messengers. Every time Dhawan went in to tell them to leave, they asked for something else. First they asked for dinner, which was served them in the room. Then they told him that the dogs also needed to eat, and the secretary ordered them to be fed and was unlucky because Sheba, Maneka’s Irish wolfhound, excited by the atmosphere of hostility there was in the house, gave him a slight bite on the arm.
It went on like that for a couple of hours, until they ordered their trunks, suitcases, and parcels to be taken out. When they were already outside, Dhawan came back again, this time accompanied by the guru, and said, “I’m sorry, but we have orders to check your things.”
“Very well,” said Maneka, “if you’re going to search me, let it be out here, so that everyone can see.” And she began to open the trunks, deliberately pulling out clothes, shoes, books…
Suddenly, the flashes of the photographers at the gates lit up the night like a minor fireworks display. Indira appeared in the doorway and told Dhawan not to insist on the search. She had realized that her daughter-in-law had won the match and she was beginning to give way. Maneka had done nothing more than to apply one of her mother-in-law’s lessons: “Let your enemies do what they want to you, but always in the public eye, so they show the worst side of themselves.” When the lamentable spectacle of the search came to an end, Maneka and her sister went back to their room, demanding that her things and the dogs should be sent on ahead of them. The last of the conditions was that they would not leave without little Feroze Varun.
On that disastrous night, Indira’s worst mistake was trying to keep hold of her two-year old grandson. Before the quarrel she had given orders for him to be taken to her room. He had spent the day with a slight temperature. When the servants went to fetch him, Indira refused to hand him over.
“My grandson is staying with me,” she said in an attack of irrational stubbornness.
Maneka let her know that if she did not hand over the baby, she would do a sit-in at the door of the house until she got him.
Very skillfully, the young widow was preparing to exploit her role as victim. Indira’s fight was a desperate one. She sent for P.C. Alexander, her principal secretary, who, on being woken in the middle of the night, thought that some international conflict had broken out. “I had never seen her so distressed, so worried, so anxious, so tense as that night,” he would say. “Her face reflected her indescribable anguish.”
“Madam,” Alexander said to her, “you have had to face so many crises in your life, so many political battles, the death of your son. Why are you like this now?”
“Alexander, this girl wants to take Feroze Varun away from me. You know my relationship with Sanjay’s son. He’s my grandson. They want to take him away from me.”
Indira was still beside herself. The suffering caused by the loss of her grandson was clouding her judgement. There was no way to make her see sense, to convince her that her daughter-in- law was in the right. However much she was prime minister, she could do nothing against the fact that Maneka was the baby’s mother. The lawyers she made come in the middle of the night to see how she could hang on to the baby all agreed that there was nothing to be done.
“Madam,” one of the lawyers said finally, “if you keep the baby, your daughter-in-law will file a complaint and you will be forced to hand him over to the police, who in turn will give him back to his mother. I suggest you save yourself all that trouble.”
The battle was lost. Indira went to her room and stood looking at the baby, who was sleeping in his cot. Indira was flooded with tears. Rarely in her life had she been seen to cry so much and to be so distraught. For her, it was like her son’s death all over again. When the nanny went to take the baby away, Indira gestured to her, took him out of the cot, and hugged him tight, aware that probably it was the last time she would see him. Then she handed him over, shattered inside, wiping her tears away with the end of her sari.
It was after 11 p.m. when, carrying the confused, half-asleep Feroze Varun in her arms, Maneka finally left the house and got into a car with her sister. An explosion of flashes lit up the whole sequence of their departure. Photos that fitted the image she wanted to give, of a loyal daughter-in-law treated cruelly by her powerful and authoritarian mother-in-law. “Maneka waving to the reporters from the car,” said the caption under the photo that came out the next morning in all the newspapers in India and some abroad. The Indian Express published an article comparing the efforts of the prime minister to kick Maneka out to the act of “killing a wasp with blows from an ax.”Indira had lost and she knew it.
Sonia was heartbroken to see her so distraught. Although she had been able to see it coming, perhaps more clearly than Indira herself. She suffered because she had been like a second mother to the little boy. The baby’s birth evoked memories of the family’s happiness, found again after the upsets of the Emergency. The harmony had not lasted long, only until Sanjay’s death, but it had left a deep impression on all the members of the family. Priyanka and Rahul had also become used to their little cousin’s presence, so close to them that they considered him to be like a brother. During the following days, Indira said to everyone who came to see her, “Do you know what’s happened? Maneka and Feroze Varun have left the house,” as though it had been the considered decision of two adults. The whole country knew what had happened down to the last detail.
Nearly two thousand miles away, Rajiv’s Ambassador was going as fast as it could along a narrow pot-holed road, in the interiors of West Bengal. He wanted to get to Calcutta as soon as possible so that he could fly to Delhi, and perhaps arrive in time to say good-bye to his mother. His pre-campaign electoral tour had been interrupted when his car was intercepted by a police jeep 200 kilometres south of Calcutta. A policeman handed him a note: “There has been an accident at the prime minister’s home. Cancel all visits and return to Delhi immediately.”3 As they drove through the countryside of glittering rice paddies and villages, Rajiv heard on the car radio that his mother had been gunned down by her bodyguards and had been taken to hospital, where the doctors were trying to save her life. He reacted with calm and self-possession, perhaps because he still nursed the hope that she might survive. After a noisy two-and-a- half-hour drive, a police helicopter intercepted his car when they were about 30 kilometres from Calcutta. The helicopter dropped him at the airport, where an Indian Air Force plane was waiting to take him home. He completed the journey on the flight deck, with the pilots, who were in radio contact with the capital. It was by means of a communication full of interference that he finally heard that she had died. He remained still, not speaking and not shedding any tears. The Nehrus, as he had learned, did not cry in public. It seemed as if the news had not surprised him, perhaps because he was overcome by a certain feeling of fatalism, similar to what his mother had once felt.
After the announcement from the doctors, Sonia asked Pupul to go home with her to get some clothes in which they could dress Indira for her final journey. Besides, Sonia was anxious to see her children and leave the hospital. Outside, the activity in the streets seemed normal. The news had still not got out.
When she got home and her children asked her “How is dadi?” Sonia fell to pieces. Her sobbing drowned out her words. But were any words necessary? Rahul hugged his mother tight, and Priyanka ran into the house and came back with the inhaler. Sonia did not need it, and gradually, she calmed down. Then, after explaining everything to them, Pupul and Sonia went into Indira’s dressing room. They chose one of her favourite saris – pale-rose that had been gifted to her. The children did not want to stay in the house. They also wanted to see their grandmother for the last time. Sonia and Pupul brought them to the hospital. The atmosphere in the streets had changed. The shops were closing. “We could see men with anxious faces pedaling their bicycles quickly to get back home,” Pupul would say. As they got closer, they saw more and more people walking in the same direction as the hospital. There was such a crowd gathered that the police blocked the main entrance. Sonia and the children had to use a service entrance.
At the same time, Rajiv was landing at Palam Airport with his stomach in knots. Neither Sonia nor his children were there to meet him, the only people that he would really have liked to see at that moment. On the other hand, leaders from the party were waiting for him at the foot of the steps, with some of his friends. Rajiv immediately knew what they had come to ask him. They had come to demand that, whether he liked it or not, he should be the next prime minister of India.
No one seemed to disagree with what was considered as the natural law. Furthermore, it was the best thing that could happen for his safety and that of his family, as he would have all the influence of the government at his command to protect him. It was a powerful argument.
“But that has to be decided by the party and the president of the country,” he objected. “The president is the one designated by law to choose the person who must form a government.”
“He has already made that decision.”
“But he isn’t even in Delhi!”
“He has already made it known. You have to accept, Rajiv, it’s the best thing for you all.”
Aboard an aircraft in which he was returning from an official visit to Yemen, President Zail Singh, an old friend of the Nehru family, had already taken the decision to ask Rajiv to take over as prime minister. And in addition, that he should do so immediately without letting any time pass. The moment was of extreme importance. The death of Indira at the hands of Sikh gunmen made him fear an outbreak of communal violence. For that reason, it was urgent to avoid a power vacuum, in order to keep the country united in the face of such a threat, which could put an end to constitutional order and, definitely, to India as a nation. “We must not leave the throne empty, it’s very dangerous.” Later, when the president explained the reasons for his choice, he said that he had to choose a new prime minister from the Congress party, because it was the party with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. And who better than Rajiv, who had an unsullied reputation and was young and intelligent? There was another reason, which had nothing to do with Rajiv’s professional merits – it was what Indira would have liked. “I knew the way she thought and what she wanted,” the president admitted, “even though we never discussed it specifically. I just knew what she was like.” So Rajiv found himself with no way out. If he had never abandoned her while she was alive, was he going to do so now that she was dead? Had he not already taken the decision to enter politics? Was what the country asking of him not the logical way forward? He had never wanted to be prime minister, not even to have a position in the government, but sometimes life moves quickly and leaves no room for choice.
As he walked along the corridor of the hospital, Rajiv came across a number of people who had been part of his mother’s life, including a tearful Maneka, the ineffable Dhirendra Brahmachari, who kept repeating that Indira should have listened to him to avoid the danger that was hanging over her, ministers and civil servants, assistants and secretaries who wept openly. The party barons were all at the hospital and took advantage of his arrival to let him know that they wanted him as the head of the Congress party and, consequently, as the nation’s new leader. Everyone took it for granted that they were speaking to the future prime minister. “You have to accept,” they said to him. “If not for yourself, do it for your wife and children, for your safety. And for your mother, for the memory of your grandfather, for the family, for India.”
It was at 3:15 p.m. when Rajiv arrived in the room next to the operating theater. He gave Sonia a big hug and she burst into tears. Perhaps she was remembering the sheer panic and nervousness that marked her first meeting with Indira in London. Who would have thought then that she would come to love her mother-in-law so much?
Rajiv hugged the children; they looked frightened. The wave of terror that the attack had unleashed had spread like an epidemic. After Operation Blue Star, a group of fanatics had sworn to exterminate Indira’s descendants for a hundred generations, hadn’t they? Who would be next? Father, Mother, us? Who knew if behind any nurse, any visitor, any of the many people walking the corridors of the hospital, another murderous terrorist might not be hiding? Where would the avenging fury of the Sikh extremists stop?
He did not have much time to console his family. The country required his attention, not even giving him time to weep for his mother’s death or calm his family down. “I remember that I felt the need to be alone with him, even if just for a moment,” Sonia would say. She took him to a corner of the operating theater, a few feet away from where the doctors were sewing up Indira’s body. It smelled of formaldehyde and ether. The white neon light brutally illuminated the devastated features of Rajiv’s usually soft face.
“They’re going to make me prime minister,” he told her in a whisper.
Sonia shut her eyes. It was the worst thing she could have heard. It was like the announcement of a death sentence. Rajiv took her hands in his as he continued whispering the reasons that were forcing him to accept the post.
“Sonia, it is the best way for us to protect ourselves, believe me. We will have maximum protection available. That’s what we need now.”
“Let’s go and live somewhere else…”
“Do you think we’ll be safe in another country? We’re all on the blacklist of the extremists, and those fanatics are capable of striking anywhere. No, Sonia, we have no option but to live under constant protection, at least until the threat is removed.”
Sonia wept disconsolately. She knew what that meant. It meant having to live in a claustrophobic environment, that the children would not be able to enjoy a normal life. Was that living? “I’m begging you, Rajiv, don’t let them do this to you,” Sonia said.
“I can assure you it’s for our own good.”
“For our own good? But the system of protection you’re talking about has shown itself to be totally inefficient. A prime minister gunned down in her own home, and not even a basic emergency team on hand! Do you see what I mean?”
“They warned her to change her Sikh guards, but she didn’t pay attention…”
“What do you mean? That it was her own fault?”
“She should have listened to the police chief and the Intelligence Bureau. She would still be with us now if she had.”He hugged her again.
She went on: “My God, they’ll kill you, too.”
“I have no choice, they’ll kill me anyway, whether I’m in power or not.”
“Please don’t accept, tell them no…”
“I can’t, my love. Can you imagine going on living as though nothing had happened, always afraid, here, in Italy or anywhere else? That’s what would happen if I don’t accept. That’s how you have to look at it. It’s my destiny. Our destiny… There are times when life doesn’t give you any choice because there is no choice possible. Help me to accept it.”
“Oh no! Oh my God, no!” Sonia sobbed in a flood of tears. “They’ll kill you, they’ll kill you…” she repeated as P.C. Alexander, Indira’s official secretary, came to interrupt them. The wheel of succession could not wait. It was urgent to set it in motion. He took Rajiv by the arm.
“We have to organize the swearing-in,” he said in a low voice.
“I’m going home to change,” Rajiv answered him. “I’ll be at Rashtrapati Bhavan by six o’clock.”
Sonia knew that now there was nothing to be done, that once again, she had to bow to forces that were superior to her and which she would never be able to control. When Rajiv kissed her forehead and slowly walked away, Sonia felt torn apart. She was prey to an indefinable feeling of helplessness, just like when she was in the Ambassador cradling the head of a dying Indira in her arms.
At the end of the day, before going up the steps to the plane, Rajiv turned to his electors and said something that turned out to be prophetic: “I don’t think I’ll be able to come back again, but Sonia is staying to look after you.” Sonia felt a stab in her heart. Not because she was going to be left on her own, because the warmth of the people and the kind attitude of the local members of the Congress party made her feel at home, but because it was the first time in twenty-three years of marriage that they were going to spend so much time apart – almost three weeks.
That night, while she was in a tent struggling with the heat and the mosquitoes, Sonia remembered the last time she had been in Amethi. It was in February, the month when they celebrated their wedding anniversary. She had come there to launch a polio vaccination campaign. She thought they would not be able to celebrate their anniversary together, because Rajiv had planned to travel to Tehran. He was going to launch a diplomatic initiative to put an end to the Gulf War. But one night, a note from Rajiv arrived asking her to please cancel her commitments in Amethi and return as fast as possible to Delhi to go with him to Iran. “I feel as though… I want to be with you, only you and me together, the two of us, without hundreds of people flapping around us as usual,” said the note. When Sonia reached Delhi, around midnight, she found Rajiv nervous because he thought she would not arrive in time to catch the flight. She discovered that he had already packed their suitcases and everything was ready for their journey. In Tehran, after their official commitments, they went out to have dinner in a restaurant. How long had it been since they had been able to allow themselves such privacy? They could not remember… Rajiv gave her a present that he had brought from Delhi, a pair of beautiful earrings, just the kind of thing she liked. When they got back to the hotel, he picked up his camera, which he always travelled with and they took a photo of themselves with the timer setting, which they had tried using for the first time.
“Madam, madam!”A voice from outside the tent interrupted her thoughts. Sonia went out. A young party member, handed her an envelope. It had come from New Delhi and was from Rajiv. Sonia opened it and found a rose, with a handwritten note. She read it and smiled. “It was a love letter,” she would confess later.
On 20 May, Rajiv and Sonia left the house at 7:30 in the morning to cast their votes. At that hour, the temperature was still bearable. Rajiv, dressed in a white kurta and pyjama with a tricolour-angvastram around his neck, drove the car along the wide avenues, which seemed deserted. At the entrance to the polling booth, a small crowd and a television team was waiting for them. Sonia looked splendid in a red salwar kameez. They greeted people, and Rajiv signed some autographs while they waited for the polling booth to open. Behind them, a queue was beginning to form. A young volunteer from the party came up to Rajiv with a puja thali in order to begin the day on an auspicious note. Whenever she was with her husband in a public place, Sonia closely observed anyone who came close, trying to ascertain whether they had any hidden intentions, a suspicious-looking lump, an unusual gesture. Her paranoia gave her no peace. She got a fright when the man holding the puja thali, perhaps intimidated by Rajiv, dropped it with a crash, which made everyone jump. Rajiv noticed his wife’s distress and asked for a glass of water for her. When it was her turn to vote, she was so upset that she could not find the symbol of the Congress party on the ballot paper. For a moment, she thought she would have to leave without voting. When they left, as they went toward the car, she told Rajiv, who laughed. “He held my hand,” Sonia would remember, “with that warm, soothing touch that always helped to dissipate any feeling of anxiety.” It was perhaps the last occasion on which Rajiv was present to calm his wife, because after he left her at home, he went off for the next tour. In the evening, he expected to come back to Delhi to fly to Orissa and then the south, where elections would take place two days later.
But that evening, Rajiv surprised them by coming home. Sonia and Priyanka were happy to see him, even if only for a short while. Rajiv had a quick shower, then had something to eat and called his son in the US: “I’m calling to wish you luck in your exams, Rahul, and to tell you how happy I am that you’ll be home soon… It’s going to be a great summer… I love you… Bye bye.” Then he kissed Priyanka. He had to go again, but the good thing was that that would be the last stage of the electoral tour. He was calm; he was going to the south, safe territory, not like the north, with all its upheaval and danger.
“Can’t you stop now?” Sonia asked him. “This trip will not change the results.”
“I know, but it’s already been organized… Come on, one last push and we’ll come out on top… Just two more days and we’ll be together again,” he told Sonia with that captivating smile of his.
“We said good-bye tenderly,” Sonia would remember, “and he left. I stood looking through the crack in the curtains and I saw him go off, until I lost sight of him… This time forever.”
It was Vincent George, Rajiv’s secretary, working in Rajiv’s private office in a distant wing of the house, who received the call at 10:30 p.m.. The family was asleep.
“Sir, there has been a bomb attack,” said a faltering voice, muffled by interference.
“I’m from the Intelligence Bureau. I’m calling from Sriperumbudur.”
The secretary’s throat closed up.
“How is Rajivji?” he asked.
There was no reply.
Nervous, the secretary urged him: “Why don’t you tell me…how is Rajivji?”
“Sir, he’s dead,” the man said, and immediately hung up.
The secretary held the receiver in his hand, trying to take in what he had just heard. The slight hope that it might have been a false alarm evaporated as soon as he hung up, when the phone rang again. A member of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu confirmed the news. Immediately, the other lines began to ring, creating an unbearable racket. The secretary hurried out.
By this time M.L. Fotedar and Satish Sharma had reached 10 Janpath. Around midnight they informed Priyanka of what had happened. It was left to nineteen-year-old Priyanka to tell Sonia – who was the last to know.
Her whole body contracted as if she had received an electric shock, and from the depths of her soul, a harsh, guttural cry arose. Seven years after the conversation she had had with Rajiv in the hospital where Indira lay dying, in which she begged him not to accept the post that his mother had left vacant, her grim fear was finally realized.
Never in all her nineteen years had Priyanka seen her mother in such a state of despair. No one had ever seen her cry like that.
Priyanka could not comfort her. Suddenly, Sonia began to cough and choke in such a way that the secretary feared she would lose consciousness.
“It’s an asthma attack,” said Priyanka.
It was so violent that she felt very afraid.
“I’ll be right back,” she called.
She ran to her mother’s room and searched feverishly for her inhaler and antihistamines. When she came back into the living room, she saw Sonia sitting on an armchair with her eyes almost turned up, her mouth open and her head thrown back, trying to get air. She thought she was dying.
The medicines took effect and managed to stop the coughing, but not the sobbing. However much Priyanka tried to calm her down, Sonia was inconsolable. Her weeping fed on itself, as insistent and regular as the waves pounding on the beach.
Priyanka turned to Vincent George.
“Where is my father?” she asked.
“At the moment, they are taking him to Madras.”
“Please help me to do what’s necessary to get us there,” she asked.
Priyanka took charge of the situation, showing admirable maturity, cool-headedness and a sense of organization. She spoke to her father’s friends, and leaders of the Congress party, who arrived looking perplexed and desolate, some of them weeping. She even spoke to President R. Venkataraman on the telephone. Deep down, something inside her prevented her from believing that her father was dead. It was like a reflex that protected her from pain and allowed her to act. Subconsciously, she found it hard to accept something so catastrophic without checking that it was true, and that is why she needed to see her father as soon as possible.
“Do you think it’s wise to go there?” President Venkataraman asked.
“Please, Mr. President, I must insist. My mother and I have the firm intention of going to Madras this very night.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to the army to have an air force plane put at your disposal. Then I’ll come by your residence to give my condolences.”
“Thank you. We’ll be expecting you.”
Now she had to give her brother the news, in Harvard. It was lunchtime, there. She managed to get a classmate to give him a message that he should call home urgently. An hour later, his sister and his mother gave him the worst news of his life.
“I knew it, I knew it!” said the young man crying and biting his lip. “I knew it was going to happen.”
“We did what we could…”
“Do you think so?”
“Of course we did.”
They told him to come on the first flight out, as they would wait for him for the funeral.
By now it was past midnight, and the news had spread around New Delhi. A crowd was gathering around the gates of the house. From inside, Priyanka and Sonia could hear hysterical cries and laments. Friends of the family, colleagues, ministers, police officers, and others kept arriving. It was a real invasion. The press took up positions at the gate and in the street. The people still did not know against whom to direct their rage: against the Sikhs, the
Muslims, or the Hindu fundamentalists, or the LTTE? Frustrated, they directed their ire against the press. Such was the atmosphere in the streets that President Venkataraman was unable to get to the house. He found a frantic, desperate crowd of people near the house. They threw themselves on the hood of his car, weeping and screaming.
“Should we disperse them?” the security officer asked the president.
“No. Let’s turn around. I don’t want things to get even more heated.”
Back at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president phoned Sonia. She was a little calmer and was able to thank him for his condolences and the facilities he had ordered for that singular journey.
As soon as Sonia hung up, she left the house with Priyanka. Outside, a car was waiting for them to take them to the airport. The family’s old friend, T.N. Kaul, the one who had tried so hard to get Rajiv to follow in his brother’s footsteps drove them. The car made its way with difficulty through the crowd that was packed around the house. The streets were more and more turbulent. Groups of people gathered on the street corners and at the traffic circles, in a state of mind that hovered between rage and grief.
“I hope the government acts soon and doesn’t allow the same kind of violence that engulfed the city after Indira died,” said Kaul.
The flight to Madras lasted three-and-a-half hours. Below, in that dark stretch of land scattered with little dots of light that indicated the cities and villages, India slept. In a few hours, it was going to wake up to the tragedy of another political assassination. In a few hours, the country will be steeped in sorrow. Nobody spoke during the flight. Only Sonia’s sobs could be heard.
It was still dark when they reached Madras at 4:30 a.m. The plane taxied to the old terminal. Rajiv’s remains were there. At the instructions of the authorities, they had brought it to the airport in a bid to help Sonia and Priyanka avoid having to drive into the city. They were very nervous… nervous to see his remains and be compelled to accept the reality of his death. Several questions crossed their minds as they walked down the steps of the aircraft. When Sonia saw Suman Dubey, Rajiv’s loyal, old friend who had miraculously survived the attack, she broke down.
But they did not see Rajiv. They could not. They were told that the body was in such bad shape that it had been impossible to embalm him. The only things they saw were the two coffins – with Rajiv’s remains and those of his bodyguard, Pradip Gupta. Holding tight to each other, mother and daughter watched as the coffins were put into the plane. Once inside the plane, Sonia put a garland of flowers on the coffin, while with the other hand she covered her face to wipe away her tears. Priyanka too, now had to embrace the reality her subconscious had been refusing to accept – that her father was in that coffin. She broke down realizing that she would never see him again, that never again would her father’s love and warmth comfort her. She held on to the coffin and sobbed for a long time.
At that moment, Sonia made a gesture that Rajiv no doubt would have appreciated. As she realized that the coffin of Pradip Gupta had nothing on it, she placed a garland of jasmine there, too.
And besides, she has another grievance against Rao’s government. The trial of the conspirators arrested in relation to Rajiv’s assassination, shows no sign of ever beginning. As a result of the interrogations of those detained, the investigators have discovered a meticulously drawn up plan to put an end to Rajiv’s life. They know it was designed in the depths of the jungles of Sri Lanka by the official leadership of the LTTE who also chose local sympathizers from Tamil Nadu to execute the plan. The investigation have discovered a large support network for the LTTE. It was a highly sensitive operation: those who lent their safe house were only told that the operation was for the larger cause while those closer to the leadership only knew that the operation involved assassinating a politician “hostile to the struggle of the tigers”. Only the leadership and those directly involved in the execution of the assassination know the target was Rajiv Gandhi. Those leaders feared that if Rajiv had got back into power, he would have sent the Indian army to the island again.
Sonia and her children are disappointed and angered at the inaction of the court.
“Wait a little longer, you have to be patient,” Rajiv’s former colleagues tell her repeatedly.
“If it is slow, justice is not justice…” asks Sonia, repeating another phrase she has heard a thousand times when Indira was alive.
“This is not the moment to attack the Congress party. It is so weakened that it would be fatal. Especially if it comes from you.”
“Neither my children nor I will wait for much longer.”
Sonia, involved in the work of the Foundation, travels the country like she has never done before. Whether it is to
inaugurate the Lifeline Express – a mobile hospital train – or providing aid for the areas affected by riots, launching literacy programmes, or opening a cancer hospital in a remote rural area, her presence attracts a growing number of people who invariably give her a warm welcome. At feeling loved, she learns to be more communicative, not with the press, of which she is still suspicious, but with the women with whom she shares chai and a chat, and with the children whom she hugs. Her work deeply satisfies her.
On 20 August 1995, Rajiv’s birth anniversary, now tired of waiting, Sonia speaks out for the first time. And she chooses to do so in Amethi. Thousands of people deliriously cry, “Sonia, save the country!” as she slowly climbs the steps leading to the dais, her head covered by her sari. She is very nervous. This is in stark contrast with her daughter, Priyanka, who greets the crowd in a relaxed fashion.
“Mummy, look how many people there are! Don’t you think you ought to wave to them?”
Sonia listens to her daughter and raises her arm. The thunderous response from the people encourages her. Flanked by Priyanka, she gives free rein to her anger:
“For four long years, the government has been incapable of arresting my husband’s murderers and bringing them to trial,” she declares in near-perfect Hindi. “If the proceedings into the assassination of a former prime minister take so long, what will happen to the common citizen? I am sure you understand what
I am feeling.” In the midst of a hurricane of exclamations, she continues: “Today, the ideals of Nehru, of Indira, and of Rajiv are under threat. There are divisions everywhere. The time has come to restore their principles and I will be with you in that effort.”
“Sonia, save the country!” the people reply, feeling love for this brave and worthy widow. They admire her for her self-denial, her faithfulness to the family, and her sacrifice.
Before she gets into the car, a reporter comes up to her: “Does your speech mark the return of the Gandhi dynasty to the political scene in India?”
“No,” replies Sonia. “I have no political ambitions. I always speak as the president of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.”
But India has heard her message. The next day, her photo with her arm raised, accompanied by Priyanka, is on the front page of all the national newspapers. In the eyes of millions of Indians, Sonia is no longer seen as the housewife who lives in the shadow of her husband and her mother-in-law, and she becomes she public figure responsible for the legacy of the family.
Sonia now understands what India and Rajiv felt. Contact with the people cheers her, comforts her, and takes her out of her existential anguish, making her forget the contradiction there is in taking on the legacy of a political family when she herself detests politics. The result of the following elections, those in 1996, do not surprise her at all. She estimated that the Congress would not get even 200 MPs. It does not even get 140 – a historic disaster.
Rao dissolves the government and resigns as prime minister and leader of the party.
A few days later, she receives a visit from a group of dissidents of the Congress party, who once again have returned to ask for her advice in choosing the next president of the organization. But Sonia refuses to give her opinion. This time, aware of her power, of “the Sonia factor”, she does not even mention who would be her favourite to take over.
The one who has come out victorious in these elections is Maneka, who has again won from Pilibhit as an independent candidate. She is now seen as a champion of animal welfare.
The Congress party members are calling on Sonia regularly. The situation is catastrophic, they tell her, with the party falling apart and the country rushing toward the abyss of religious conflicts. The infighting within the largest political organization in the world is emptying it of the best leaders, who are deserting en masse. The new leader, Sitaram Kesri, elected at the cost of bitter disputes, does not inspire respect. Sonia knows that this man is not the solution, rather the opposite. In spite of the constant pressure, she still does not let them twist her arm. “What about Priyanka?” they ask. It does not matter who it is, but it must be a Gandhi, it is the only thing that can save the organization. Only a Gandhi can hold together the different tendencies, the different egos. Only a Gandhi can galvanize the battered morale of the sympathizers. In the once all-powerful Congress party, there is despair. “Millions of party members are prepared to give their lives for you. How can you allow the Congress party to fall apart before your very eyes?”
Sonia begins to feel slightly guilty, her conscience afflicted by a kind of pain. “Can I go on being a silent spectator in the face of the disintegration of the party for which Rajiv gave his life?” The question perturbs her. Suddenly, it is as if the ground has given way beneath her feet. Besides, she is tired of the pressure. The sycophancy exhausts her. But above all, she is tormented. If the Congress party falls apart, the family legacy comes to an end. Thinking that Rajiv’s sacrifice was in vain made her lose sleep. Her daughter shares her worries.
“Something has to be done,” Priyanka declares, “otherwise the Opposition will end up destroying everything our family has achieved.”
When an old friend of the family, Amitabh Bachchan, visits her, she shares her uneasiness.
“I wonder if by failing the Congress party, I’m not failing Nehruji, Indiraji, and Rajiv.”
“Don’t confuse them with the leaders there are now. These are a bunch of sycophants who want to take advantage of your family’s power of pull for their own political ends. Don’t let yourself be deceived; don’t give way.”
“Of course, you’re right,” she tells him.
But Priyanka does not agree with Amitabh.
“So,” she tells her mother when they are alone again, “we are going to let the country fall apart and not do anything then?”
Sonia answers her with another question: “Don’t you think the family has already done enough for the country?”
Months later, a visit from another old friend of Rajiv’s, Digvijay Singh, sows more doubt in Sonia’s mind. He is one of the most highly valued leaders of the Congress party, an upright man whose opinion always carried weight in Rajiv’s time.
“We’re heading straight for disaster,” he tells her suddenly.
“With this new party president, we aren’t even going to get a hundred seats in the next elections. Do you know what that means? It means the disintegration of the party.”
There was a long, dense silence.
“I know your position and that of your children with regard to taking on your family’s mantle, but given the gravity of the situation, I have come in the name of Rajiv’s colleagues to ask you to do it. I know what you think of politics, we all know. I know you’re going to say no, but I would be remiss in my duty if I did not insist. And I wouldn’t do it if I knew there was a better solution.”
“I have always thought that you could be a good president for the party,” Sonia tells him.
“I don’t have enough backing. I may have in the future perhaps, but not now. At this time of extreme gravity, the solution is up to you or your children.”
“Are you telling me that if I don’t go into politics, I’m failing in my responsibilities?”
The man does not dare to reply.
“I want to make you see another side to the problem,” he goes on. “Let us suppose that the Congress party disintegrates… What will happen to your security? Whether you go into politics or not, there are a lot of people who see you as a threat because of what you represent. Those who are against the founding principles of the Congress party are also against you. And unfortunately they are growing in number. Even if you never go into politics, the fact of having stayed on to live in this house is in itself a political act.”
Sonia does not answer. Her head is spinning.
Digvijay Singh goes on: “If they took protection away from Rajiv, they will take it away from you. Don’t have any doubts about that. If the Congress party finishes as a political force, who is going to pay for the enormous security deployment that you and your children need?”
Sonia knows he is right. There are enemies out there, and also within the party, the same ones who withdrew protection from Rajiv. Some for one reason; others for another. It is clear that if the party goes under, Sonia and her children will be left defenseless. But if she agrees and goes into politics to save it, is that not tempting the devil? Is it not exposing herself to the bullets of any madman? There is no way out. Sonia begins to realize that power not only needs her, the family also needs the protection that only power can provide. Otherwise, it is quite clear: the legacy will no longer exist, the sacrifice of Indira and Rajiv will fade into oblivion and perhaps they – Sonia, Priyanka, or Rahul – will cease to exist.
“Incredible Shock”, runs the headline of the special edition of the Hindustan Times on 14 May 2004. At Sonia’s residence, the number of messages of congratulations and support have jammed the fax. Letters, telegrams, text messages… Carlo Marroni, the mayor of Orbassano, sends her a telegram in the name of the twenty-five thousand inhabitants of his city: “We are proud of you and we hope you continue along the path of development and solidarity in the largest democracy in the world. We share with you, with your India, those values that link us all.” Paola, Sonia’s mother, has heard about her daughter’s victory at her home in the Via Bellini from a local journalist. Then she received an avalanche of calls. “Yes, of course I’m pleased,” she repeats hiding her uneasiness, “but I have nothing to say.” How can she say that she is afraid the same violence might disrupt the life of her daughter as it did in the case of her son-in-law? So Paola prefers to remain silent, and she decides not to answer the phone anymore.
Now, Sonia’s task is to secure a coalition capable of governing. She does not hesitate for an instant to call on her old friend, the brilliant economist Dr. Manmohan Singh, her guru in matters of the economy. With him, she writes a document listing the minimum conditions needed to get the firm adhesion of the other members of the coalition, which consists of more than twenty parties. How far from Indira’s or Rajiv’s times, when the Congress party governed with an absolute majority! Indian politics is now like a gigantic pot where the diverse – often contradictory – dreams, aspirations, and interests of a sixth of humanity simmer. And Sonia suddenly finds herself in the position of chief chef. She has to season the stew well, keeping the communists, liberals, regional players, and the representatives of the caste-based parties happy. The task does not catch her unawares: she has spent months making alliances, preparing the way. Her invisible groundwork now brings results. What really interests Sonia are important matters for the government: reducing poverty and ensuring economic growth; on how to make peace with Pakistan or solve the dispute over Kashmir. The same is not true of her partners. Most of them are real satraps, leaders of regional parties with egos greater than their organizations. Each of them demands ministerial portfolios and specific policies to support the members of their caste or their voters. In exchange for his backing, Lalu Prasad Yadav, the well-known leader demands the Ministry of Railways, a very important portfolio because it employs more than ten million people. And they all think that Sonia will be the prime minister. Some of them even demand it, because they do not want to be left without her leadership, which is going to allow them to enjoy their little bit of power; they think that without her the coalition will have a very short life.
After the announcement that the party is going to name her leader of their parliamentary group, the whole country takes it as a given that Sonia will assume the position of prime minister. In case there was any doubt, when a journalist asks her if it is true that the leader of the parliamentary group will be the next prime minister, Sonia replies: “Normally, that is so.” Four words which are like four slaps in the face for her adversaries. Sweet revenge. A leader of the defeated party declares on television that he finds it shameful that a foreign woman should govern India. Another leader of the same party adds that he will boycott the act of investiture of the coalition if Sonia Gandhi is prime minister. A shudder of nationalism sweeps the country and even affects members of Sonia’s own party. Uma Bharti, a BJP leader, announces her resignation claiming that “putting” a foreigner in the highest position is an insult to the country and puts national security in danger. Sushma Swaraj, another respected leader of the BJP, asks for an interview with President Abdul Kalam, to express the “grief and anguish” the matter causes her.
But no doubt, the event that causes the most impact is the suicide of thirty-year-old Mahesh Prabhu, a BJP activist, in a village near Bangalore. Before swallowing a can of rat poison, he left a note explaining that he “cannot bear the idea that in a…
Tuesday, 18 May, is a day that the members of the Congress party will not easily forget. Some two hundred MPs from the party are waiting in the chamber in Parliament, for Sonia Gandhi to announce her decision.
When she makes her appearance, followed by her children, Rahul and Priyanka, both with serious, inscrutable expressions on their faces, some already fear that the news will not be good. Sonia has come without her portfolio, which should hold the letters and messages of support that hundreds of leaders in the Congress party have sent her to encourage her to take on the job. It is a tradition that the previous prime ministers have always followed. Perhaps she is deliberately breaking it, some dare to think, resisting the loss of the last shreds of hope. They are the optimists, the ones who think she will not be able to reject the job after so much pressure.
A deathly quiet comes over the room as Sonia, impeccably dressed greets several colleagues as she makes her way to the microphone. She puts on her glasses to read her notes and announces: “Throughout these past six years that I have been in politics, one thing has been clear to me. And that is, as I have often stated, that post of prime minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice.” She pauses and looks up at her children. “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.”
An earthquake could not have caused more of a commotion. A deafening roar fills the room. Sonia speaks louder as she requests silence. “I have been subjected to much pressure to get me to reconsider my decision, but I have decided to obey my inner voice. Power has never been a temptation to me.” A chorus of laments and loud protests interrupt her. “You cannot abandon us now!” some shout. “You cannot betray the people of India,” exclaims Mani Shankar Aiyar, an old friend of Rajiv’s and a senior leader. “The inner voice of the people says you have to be the next prime minister of India!”
“I would ask you to please respect my decision,” Sonia says firmly, but they interrupt her again.
“Without you in that position, madam, there is no inspiration for us.”
A dozen MPs take turns to give their speeches, in which they invoke the example of the public service of her husband and her mother-in-law.
For more than two hours, the heated confrontation continues between the desperation of the MPs and the immovable determination of Sonia. The speeches go from reproaches that label her egoistic, to a certain admiration for the unheard of gesture of refusing power. Some accuse her of turning her back on the mandate that millions of Indians have offered her. Sonia listens impassively. In the end, the MPs present a joint resolution for her to reconsider her decision, but a dignified Sonia tells them that she does not think that is possible. “You have all expressed your points of view, your pain, and your distress at the decision I have taken. But if you have confidence in me, allow me to maintain it.”
It is a matter of insisting, some of them think. Many remember the crisis in 1999, when she announced her resignation as president of the party. She ended up giving way after the leaders asked her to come back. The problem now is that time is running out. By law, a government has to be formed before the week is out. An MP from Uttar Pradesh reminds them that Sonia’s decision does have a precedent in the history of India: “Madam, you have set an example, just as Mahatma Gandhi did,” he said, referring to when the father of the nation refused to form part of the first government after Independence. “But that day Mahatma Gandhi had Jawaharlal Nehru. Who is the Nehru today?”
Sonia does not speak about Manmohan Singh, the ace card she has up her sleeve. When she goes out, leaving her MPs distressed and disillusioned, the press crowd around her children. “As a recently elected member of Parliament,” Rahul declares, “I would like my mother to be prime minister, but as her son, I respect her decision.” Priyanka is less diplomatic. She is asked if it is true that she and her brother have influenced their mother with the “we have lost a father, we don’t want to lose a mother” argument. “It is a family matter,” she replies with honesty. “We have never been masters of our own family. We have always shared it with the nation.”
The members of the Congress party do not throw in the towel so easily. When she gets back home, Sonia finds a crowd by the gate making the same demand, that she should change her mind. They shout for it, some with tears in their eyes, others throwing themselves at her feet. All this adulation annoys her. It is like the other face of the hatred her detractors show. Both are unhealthy. As she goes into the house and comes face to face with another challenge – a mountain of letters from the members of the CWC and other affiliates who announce their resignation if she does not accept the top job. Outside, on the street, a follower who is threatening to slit his veins right there is overpowered by the police. It seems as if madness has taken over New Delhi.
But in this contest, Sonia does not give way. Out of common sense, out of a deep personal conviction, because she is sure that her decision is the wisest one for the country, for the family, and for her. Right until the last moment, they try everything to bend her to their will: they beg, they implore, they make veiled threats, but Sonia has become stronger than them all and she does not succumb. Quite the opposite, she ensures she has the backing of other members of the coalition and that they will accept a prime minister who is not a Gandhi. She sets the rhythm that all of them, even the most skeptical, end up following.
She has the unexpected support of the press, which seems to rediscover her and do their utmost to praise her: “Sonia rejects power and lights up hearts”, is the headline in a popular daily. “She rejects power and achieves glory”, says the Times of India. By saying no, Sonia’s popularity has skyrocketed. By “abdicating”, she has introduced the notion of sacrifice into the vocabulary of Indian politics. And she goes from being leader of the Congress party to being the leader of the nation. A real miracle.
A shorter, edited version of these excerpts appear in print