I think that if there’s one politician the Bharatiya Janata Party government fears – REALLY fears – it is none other than SONIA GANDHI.
The first time that I saw Sonia was at the residence of Indira Gandhi in 1977 just after she had lost the election following the end of the dreaded and hated Emergency Rule she had imposed in 1975 in order to hang on to power. I was assigned by her family-controlled newspaper, National Herald, to accompany her on a visit to a flood-affected resettlement colony in Delhi.
I was the junior-most reporter but then no senior reporter wanted to be with her because she was no longer in power and everyone had taken it for granted that her political career was over and she would go to jail for the Emergency excesses and abuses. Little did they know that that particular visit to that resettlement colony (about which I have written several times over the years) would be the beginning of the road back to power.
While waiting for her in the sprawling compound of the government-owned house, I suddenly saw Sonia in western-type clothes and high leather boots attending to her kids, Rahul and Priyanka, on a side lawn. But at the time, she and her pilot husband Rahul were considered as ‘curiosity items,’ so to speak. The big guy was Indira’s younger son Sanjay, feared as a goon, and her ambitious wife, Maneka (who’s now a minister in the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi). Sanjay and Maneka stood by Indira, encouraging her to fight back.
As I wrote just last May – when I suggested that Priyanka, and not Rahul, should be the Congress boss – that visit to the resettlement colony “was the start of a spectacular comeback that she mounted and unnerved the then coalition government that made the blunder of arresting her. That only led to her being portrayed as a martyr. She won a huge majority in the 1980 election and I covered that election as a reporter with the Times of India.”
When Sanjay died in a small plane crash in New Delhi in 1980, I saw how shattered Indira was – she never really recovered from that shock. He was being groomed as her successor and it was well known that she would tell Congress leaders to go to him for major decisions. I accompanied Rajiv in the special train carrying Sanjay’s ashes to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh (I was reporting for the Times of India) and witnessed how irritated he became whenever Congress workers chanted slogans that portrayed him as Indira’s successor because at the time he had no intention of joining politics. Sonia was said to have been dead set against such a move, too.
But Indira persisted and Rajiv seemed to have no choice. But the general opinion was that he was too decent for the dirty world of politics. When he became prime minister after his mother’s assassination, for a while it seemed that he would truly transform India into a modern, corruption-free country after winning the largest Lok Sabha majority (411 seats out of 542) in history. But he just wasn’t cut out for politics and everything seemed to unravel. He lost the 1989 election and was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber during the election campaign of 1991. (I came to Canada in 1990 and was travelling in California when I learned of the assassination.)
BUT it seemed that the Congress Party just couldn’t survive without a Nehru-Gandhi family member and they finally managed to convince her to become the party’s president in 1998. She stunned Hindu fanatics when she led her party to victory in the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections in spite of all their bigoted propaganda of her being an Italian (and by implication a Christian).
Interestingly, just after her 2004 victory, I wrote an article in The VOICE titled, “Indians tell Hindu nationalist party they are NOT religious bigots or racists”: “The Indian people have spoken loud and clear and the message is (as I was quoted on CBC Radio as saying …): “What the Indian people have basically said is that they are not religious bigots and they are not racists. It does not matter if (Sonia Gandhi) is white or Christian. She’s Indian to them and she comes from the famous Gandhi-Nehru family and that really matters to the people.”
Unfortunately, licking their wounds, the BJP grew even more vicious and stirred up racism when it appeared that Sonia would become the prime minister.
In a piece titled “Shame on BJP! Shame on Vajpayee!” in The VOICE in May 2004, I wrote: “How the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its leader Atal Behari Vajpayee have disgraced themselves with their shameless racism and bigotry against Sonia Gandhi!
“The intense atmosphere of hate that they were steadily whipping up against the Italian-born woman who kicked their butt in this election – even as she had done in the past few years in state elections – forced Sonia to back out of the Prime Minister’s post.”
I also bluntly noted: “The BJP and their allies who support this bigoted stand against Sonia have made fools of themselves before the whole world. The next time an Indian in Canada or the USA or in Britain complains about racism, don’t be surprised if you are told to shut up and look at your own guys first.”
Then I added: “Sonia, on the other hand, displayed class when she gracefully declined the Prime Minister’s “gaddi” (position of power) and scored a stunning coup by making the GREAT economist and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, MANMOHAN SINGH, 72, a Sikh and the first non-Hindu Prime Minister.
“He is the one who started India’s economic reforms as Finance Minister from 1991 to 1996. He depreciated the Indian Rupee by 18 per cent, ended export subsidy, delicensed all but 18 industries and opened up all but eight sectors to private industry, slashed import duty and allowed partial convertibility of the rupee.
“I don’t need to go into all the details here – but he is just what India needs at this stage.
“And of course, as he himself quite clearly stated, Sonia will still be the head honcho – yes, she will be more powerful than those bigots who caused so many people to die in Hindu-Muslim riots. How can any self-respecting, educated Indian turn a blind eye to this despicable communal record of the BJP?”
But just as Rajiv had proved to be a disappointment in politics, her son, Rahul, on whom she was relying, proved be another letdown – in fact, he was even worse than his father! And her control over Manmohan Singh when he was prime minister finally led to disillusionment – and her party’s worst defeat ever in May.
The BJP were back in power – with a majority government for the first time ever!
NOW former external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh, 83, who was forced to resign from the government in 2005 following the Iraqi food-for-oil scandal, has claimed that Sonia didn’t finally accept the prime minister’s post in 2004 because Rahul was scared that she would be assassinated.
Natwar Singh, who fell out with the Gandhi family and quit the Congress Party in 2008, said this week that Sonia’s decision had nothing to do with her “inner voice” as she had claimed at the time.
He said that Sonia and Priyanka even paid him a visit on May 7 not to disclose this fact in his soon-to-be-released autobiography “One Life is Not Enough: An Autobiography.”
Natwar Singh said in an interview to Karan Thapar on Headlines Today: “Rahul was totally against her mother becoming Prime Minister. He said she would be killed like his father and grandmother and as a son he would not allow her to become the PM. He was very adamant” at a May 18, 2004 meeting where Manmohan Singh, Gandhi family friend Suman Dubey, Priyanka and he were present, according to an Indian newspaper report this week.
Natwar Singh claimed that Sonia apologized to him and told him that she was not aware of how he had been treated by the government, but he told her: “nobody will buy it because nothing happens in Congress without your knowledge, without your approval. Same is the case with government.”
Natwar Singh also backed up the claim made by Manmohan Singh’s media adviser Sanjaya Baru that important government files were shown to Sonia by a PMO official. He added that there was no protest because Sonia was the “foremost” leader.
Natwar Singh, whose son is a BJP MLA in an Indian state, said that his revelations had nothing to do with revenge, but “it is important to tell facts as you know them.”
He added: “She is a public figure. She is the most important politician in India… She is every biographer’s dream. She is a historic figure.”
Natwar Singh said that Sonia was tougher than Rajiv, noting: “He was very large-hearted. You cannot take liberties with her.”
(Sonia has denied Natwar Singh’s allegations. Manmohan Singh has denied that any files were sent to Sonia from the Prime Minister’s Office.)
THE fact remains that Sonia is STILL a power to reckon with. I have seen too many ups and downs in Indian politics over the decades and I know that the BJP can lose popularity very quickly and be defeated in the next election.
But I don’t see a future for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty with Rahul at the helm – the party needs someone like PRIYANKA.
As I wrote after the Congress Party’s defeat last May:
“Back in January of 2013 I suggested in a write-up that the Congress should make Priyanka Gandhi Vadra the prime minister-in-waiting by getting her into the Rajya Sabha (India’s House of Lords) while Rahul could take over his mom’s Sonia Gandhi’s position as president of the Congress Party. Sonia could remain the real boss behind the scenes.
“I noted back then that Rahul had proved to be an utter failure and what the Congress Party desperately needed was a charismatic figure like Priyanka who bears quite a resemblance to her grandmother Indira Gandhi.
“I also noted that I could understand Sonia’s predicament in projecting her daughter as the next prime minister, but that Rahul should realize the reality of the situation himself and urge his mother to do so.
“Well now it’s even more obvious that the Congress MUST dump Rahul who proved to be a terribly weak personality while Priyanka won admiration for the way she hit back at BJP leader Narendra Modi during the election campaign, mocking him and providing a sliver of hope to the beleaguered Congress Party.
“I see the same defiance in her that I saw while covering Indira Gandhi shortly after she had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1977 just after the hated Emergency Rule.
“ … Priyanka, I believe, has that same personality and defiance to revive the demoralized Congress Party once again.
“Sonia Gandhi would really be one stupid woman (to put it very bluntly) if she does not replace Rahul with Priyanka as soon as possible!”