22 March 2010 National Cover Story: Sonia Gandhi

The Lady In The Sari

Indira and Sonia, two cogs from a dynastic wheel but seemingly very different. What sets the new Mrs G apart?
The Lady In The Sari
Jitender Gupta
The Lady In The Sari

“I don’t think anyone was smarter than Indira...but Sonia has turned out smarter than people expected her to be.” Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Former West Bengal CM    “Sonia is a hesitant speaker. She wants the policies to speak for her and legitimise her leadership.”
 Zoya Hasan Political scientist

 “In Sonia, I see the qualities an Indian leader should have. She is accommodating and believes in consultation.” Ashis Nandy Sociologist   “She’s shaping her legacy in a different style. Sanjay was a nightmare...Rahul is being promoted more gracefully.” Dipankar Gupta Sociologist


When a hesitant Sonia Gandhi took her first early steps in Indian politics, she made it a point to dress like her formidable mother-in-law, whose bullet-riddled body she had cradled on that terrible day in 1984. Indira Gandhi is embedded in our history—and all our collective memories—as the enigmatic leader who transformed the nation and the nature of our politics. She also left us with the contemporary world’s most durable political dynasty.

Indira Gandhi atop the podium at a Congress function in Shimla in the early ’70s

Twenty-six years after Indira’s assassination and 19 years after she lost husband Rajiv, Sonia is beginning to create her own legacy. Her undiluted support for the Women’s Reservation Bill that passed its first hurdle in the Rajya Sabha last week is testimony to that. There is little doubt that the reluctant male political class within the Congress would have found some pretext to torpedo the bill if Sonia had not been so firm. In a TV interview later, Sonia showed a little gentle humour: “When some party MPs came to congratulate me and said they were happy, I asked, sachmuch (really)!”

Sonia has adroitly found a position in power by staying out of power, something Indira could never have contemplated.

Congressman and author Mani Shankar Aiyar says the passage of the women’s bill marks the moment when Sonia came into her own. “On a matter of principle, Sonia Gandhi risked the future of her government. That’s a remarkable quality...it sets apart the leader from the politician,” he says. According to Aiyar, Indira had that moment when she set out to abolish privy purses, Rajiv did it with the panchayati raj legislation and now Sonia has done so, in the face of some well-entrenched male opposition.

True, leadership is a test of nerves. Sonia still dresses like Indira in those elegant handloom sarees with high-backed blouses. But she’s a very different sort of personality. Indira will always fascinate as the ruthless leader who fought, was attacked, and who fought back even more fiercely. She took on powerful men within her own party, the maharajas and maharanis in their little fiefdoms, the Opposition that she callously threw into jail during the Emergency. Indira fought tooth and nail to keep her prime ministership. Sonia simply sacrificed high office to reach new heights.

Indira Gandhi
  Sonia Gandhi
Backstory Indian-born. Very keen to join politics. Became the I&B minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet in 1964. Two years later became prime minister.   Backstory Foreign-born. A very reluctant entrant into politics. Stayed away from politics for seven years after her husband Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991.

Style of functioning

Autocratic, inflexible. Depended on a handful of advisors referred to as the kitchen cabinet. Did not strive for a consensus within her party or the Opposition. Attracted a lot of riff-raff. Was vindictive, aggressive and brazen.   Believes in evolving a consensus within the Congress and Opposition. Is open to criticism. Involves non-politicians in framing policy decisions. Her ‘western’ sensibilities keeps party riff-raff at a distance. Credo is social empowerment.

Best Remembered For
  • Bank nationalisation
  • Withdrawal of privy purses of maharajas
  • Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Understanding and Cooperation
  • Winning the Bangladesh war and the humane treatment of refugees from across the border
  • The Shimla Agreement
  • The Pokhran-I nuclear test
  Key Achievements
  • Stepping in and reviving the Congress after it hit a low in the post-Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesri period
  • Leading the Congress back to power in 2004 and 2009
  • Listening to her "inner voice" in declining the prime ministership, trusting an outsider with it
  • Shaping a legislation like NREGA to combat rural poverty, RTI for transparency, Right to Education Act
  • Pushing the Women's Reservation Bill in the RS
  • Has never been personally charged with corruption although Bofors and Quattrocchi continue to haunt her


  • Emergency and censorship
  • Promoting son Sanjay Gandhi
  • Causing a split in the Congress in 1969
  • The Garibi Hatao campaign (critics say it was mere lip service)
  • Held guilty of electoral malpractice
  • Using fundamentalists like Bhindranwale to undermine the Akali Dal
  • Operation Bluestar
  • Essentially, a believer in the dynastic legacy 
  • Not a powerful orator, particularly in Hindi
  • Often seen as allowing party to be at odds with PM
  • Not inclined to play an active role in foreign policy and economic issues
  • In 1998, she went to Rashtrapati Bhavan erroneously claiming she had the numbers to form a government.

Indira biographer Inder Malhotra (Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political History) recalls a conversation when she admitted to having overdone things in the course of the Emergency. As Malhotra puts it, “She said she was conscious that she may destroy her father’s great legacy and that is why she restored democracy.” That was Indira the leader but also a daughter, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter. There was also Indira the lonely autocrat. He recounts another instance when she told a leading journalist who asked her about the state of the party: “Where is the party? I am the party.” She wallowed in the cult of personality and encouraged slogans like ‘Indira is India/India is Indira’.

Indira fought tooth and nail to keep the PM’s post. Sonia simply sacrificed high office to reach new heights.

Sonia is certainly not Indira. Sociologist Ashis Nandy believes that future generations will judge Sonia much more kindly. She is still building her legacy but she shows the right instincts as a human being and a politician, he says. “There is a fascination with Indira because of her strength in the face of great odds. But in Sonia I see the qualities that an Indian leader should have. She is accommodating and believes in consultation. The other Indian leader who had that quality was Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indira certainly lacked the ability to consult and accommodate,” he says.

Also, some would argue that Indira did not have the instincts of a democrat that not just calls for consensus but  power-sharing. Instead, she nurtured a coterie whose members wielded excessive power. An Opposition politician who has survived the reigns of both the Gandhi women says that possibly because of her western sensibilities, Sonia keeps a distance from corrupt or controversial figures.

Where’s my plate Indira with Sonia, Sanjay and Rajiv sitting down for dinner at her residence on 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi

It certainly goes to her credit that she does not have henchmen like Indira did. Her ambitions appear to be for her children. Indira too had great ambitions for son Sanjay Gandhi but he was used as chief henchman to perpetuate her reign. His excesses during the Emergency are a matter of public record. Sonia, on the other hand, does not appear to seek power for herself but plays the role of keeper of the Nehru-Gandhi torch that will be passed on to her son. She also cuts a more maternal figure than Indira ever did. Dynastic politics has something inherently undemocratic built into it. Yet there is no indecency that Rahul or Priyanka have ever perpetuated on the nation in the manner of their infamous uncle. They come through as rather earnest young people.

‘Garibi hatao’ was mostly lip service. Sonia’s political vision is defined by policies that are more transformative.

Their vision of India is perhaps shaped by their mother’s support for social sector legislations. The Nehru-Gandhi offspring may be critiqued for being dynasts but they are perhaps set in the mould of benign monarchs who want to use their reign for what they think is the good of the people. Political scientist Zoya Hasan believes that Sonia’s ideology can be described as consisting of a strong commitment to non-sectarian politics that rises above caste, religion, community. Her political vision is defined by policies like the RTI, NREGA and now women’s reservation. Says Hasan: “Indian political leaders are defined by their rhetoric and oratory. Sonia is a hesitant speaker. I believe she wants the policies to speak for her and legitimise her leadership.” As for the comparison with Indira, Hasan will only say that the political context is a lot different and politics is more competitive today.

So, is Sonia perhaps smarter than Indira? Inder Malhotra says she has many admirable qualities “but I don’t think she is smarter, although she has certainly turned out smarter than people expected her to be”. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who was one of the Congressmen closest to Indira, jokes: “You must never ask if a mother-in-law is better than her daughter-in-law. It only creates trouble.” But on a more serious note, he says: “I don’t think any politician I have known has made smarter moves than Indira. I think Sonia has learnt from Indira’s experiences...and any politician who can run the Congress for so many years without a major disaster is certainly not a fool.”

At one level, the comparison is unfair as Indira was prime minister for over 15 years and Sonia has consistently refused office. But for the past six years, she has left her imprint on India. Right-wing commentator Swapan Dasgupta articulates his views in term of their policies and personalities: “Indira was ruthless. Sonia is a jholawali!” He elaborates the classic right-wing critique of both: “Indira was guided by a very narrow, self-serving, doctrinaire approach that led to nationalisation of banks, abolition of privy purses, overbureaucratisation and an exaggerated tilt to the Soviet Union. Sonia’s primary motivations are goody-goody, NGO-type.”

Sanjay Gandhi was mostly chief henchman. Rahul and Priyanka come across as typical, earnest young people.

Perhaps Sonia’s great achievement is that she has overcome the Italian-origin handicap and has now emerged as a decisive leader. Indira was born into a great political family and learnt at the feet of Jawaharlal Nehru; Sonia was born in distant Italy and husband Rajiv was a pilot who was compelled by circumstances to evolve into a politician. Indira reigned at a time when the Congress was the pre-eminent party of the nation and her early battles were about gaining control of the party. Sonia overcame the tragedies of two brutal assassinations to lead the Congress that was then in decline and being challenged by the forces of both Mandal and mandir.

Indira may have fought many great battles but Sonia has had to surmount many more hurdles. She has adroitly found a position in power by being out of power, something that Indira could never have contemplated. Says sociologist Dipankar Gupta: “Sonia has kept the engine cool whereas it was always overheated during Mrs Gandhi’s time. Certainly in the manner in which she shaped Indian democracy Indira has had a greater impact, both negative and positive. But Sonia is now shaping her legacy in a very different style. Sanjay Gandhi was a nightmare for the people. Rahul, in contrast, is being promoted in a more graceful manner. These are critical differences.”

Indira was charismatic, brilliant, ruthless. Sonia is softer, gentler, kinder. She may never be the fascinating leader that Indira was with all her triumphs and losses, victories and defeats. Indira perhaps had her greatest moment after winning the Bangladesh war when she was hailed as Goddess Durga by none other political opponents like Vajpayee.

Sonia also reigns in a different time and age. The greatest drama associated with her involved her renunciation of political office in 2004. Women’s reservation is the big gamble on which she has staked her government’s survival and her own reputation. If it passes as she has promised it will, it stands to transform Indian democracy much in the manner her mother-in-law did in so many ways. It is now up to Sonia to navigate the legislation through the Lok Sabha. She has certainly evolved into the lady with a quiet determination.

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