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Sonia Gandhi comes into her own

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-05

NEW DELHI - Not since the zenith of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's rule more than 30 years ago has the Indian public revered a political figure as much as Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born woman who first came here as Indira's daughter-in-law. And not since the halcyon days of the prime ministership of Indira's father, Jawaharlal Nehru - one of India's founders - more than four decades ago, has an individual in Indian public life been invested with so much political power by a party grateful for its resuscitation.

Through relentless campaigning at the grassroots in behalf of India's poor and dispossessed, through the careful selection and positioning of trusted allies in key government posts, through unflinching enunciation of her belief in secularism and moral values, and through her strong denunciation of corruption in government and public life, Sonia has transformed Indian politics in ways that neither Nehru nor Indira could have imagined. In many homes around this country of 1.1 billion people, her picture hangs next to that of another certified icon, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma.

"Mrs Gandhi's moral influence on this nation is unprecedented," says Mr Vishvjit Prithvijit Singh, a major figure in Sonia's Indian National Congress. "She has become the moral conscience of India's public, of millions of unempowered people who long felt that no one listened to their concerns. She's now in a unique position to get those concerns addressed through smarter government policies."

Bluntly put, she's India's real leader, wielding power without publicly exercising it. Even when an adoring public wanted her to become Prime Minister after the Congress Party's election victory on May 13, the 57-year-old Mrs Gandhi declined gracefully. "This act of renunciation exponentially multiplied her public acceptability, not to mention her admirers," says Mr Babulal Jain, a veteran Delhi businessman who conducts risk management courses for banks and financial institutions. "It was also a shrewd political move because it instantly demolished the opposition parties' arguments against a foreign-born person running our government."

She chose a widely respected economist, Dr Manmohan Singh, to head the government, thus displaying a canny recognition that the selection of Dr Singh, a member of the minority Sikh community, would send strong signals to the world about India's commitment to diversity, a commitment that had become suspect during the earlier five-year rule of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

And, at a time when India desperately seeks foreign direct investment to fuel economic growth and alleviate mass poverty, her choice of Dr Singh also sent a powerful message to the worried international investor community that India would continue on its path of economic liberalisation. Dr Singh's belief in free markets and bureaucratic reforms has long been appreciated in global financial circles.

Her political foes, particularly in the BJP, simply underestimated her intelligence, her ability to grasp complex economic and social issues with the proper tutelage, and her willingness to seek informed advice on governance. The shy woman who found herself reluctantly thrust into the public limelight when her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - the older of Indira's two sons - was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber in 1991, turned out to be a master of realpolitik. While the Hindu nationalists have continued to harp on her foreign origins, Mrs Gandhi has concentrated on rebuilding the long moribund Congress Party at the grassroots, showing herself to be a master of retail politics.

That mastery wasn't acquired suddenly. But it almost certainly flowed from her closeness to her mother-in-law, particularly in the period after the December 1971 liberation by the Indian military of East Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. That event, coupled with Indira Gandhi's renewed focus on "garibi hatao" - "Let's get rid of poverty" - raised the prime minister's popularity to extraordinary levels. Sonia Gandhi quietly studied Mrs Gandhi's political style. And after Indira's murder in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, Sonia had an even closer opportunity to study the use and utility of power when her husband, Rajiv, became prime minister.

Some of Rajiv's associates are still close to Sonia. Probably no one is closer to her as friends than Mr Suman Dubey, who heads Dow Jones in India, and his wife, Manju. Earlier this week, for instance, Sonia took a brief vacation at the Dubey retreat near the hill station of Dehra Dun.

What Sonia appreciates about the Dubeys is that they never use their relationship with her for personal gain. But she also has a way of rewarding her friends: Last week, Mr Kamalesh Sharma, a veteran diplomat who's married to Mr Dubey's sister, Babli, was named as India's High Commissioner to Britain, a prestigious post not only because of India's traditionally warm ties to her ex-colonial master but also because of the heavy trade between the two countries.

Sonia's economic briefings come mostly from Prime Minister Singh and Mr Jairam Ramesh, a U.S.-educated Congress Party veteran who's just been made a member of the Rajya Sabha, the 250-person Upper House of Parliament. Among those whose advice on national security matters that Mrs Gandhi seeks almost daily are Mr J. N. Dikshit, the former Foreign Secretary who recently became National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Singh; and Mr M. K. Narayanan, who's also part of the Prime Minister's office. Another close associate is Mrs Ambika Soni, General Secretary of the Congress Party, on whom Mrs Gandhi relies for counsel on media and cultural matters, as she does on Mr Dubey, too.

And part of the "inner circle" at Number 10, Janpath - Mrs Gandhi's sprawling, tree-lined residence in the heart of this capital city - are Mr Kamal Nath, the Minister of Commerce and Industry; and Mr Salman Khurshid, formerly the head of the Congress Party in Mrs Gandhi's own state, Uttar Pradesh. Three other men also belong to her team of advisers: Mr V. George, who handles her meetings, and Mr K. Pillai and Mr N. Mahadevan, both of whom handle her personal scheduling.

Mrs Gandhi also obtains advice regularly from Mr Rajiv Desai, head of Ipan, a global public relations company. It was he, for example, who persuaded her to establish a special effort to recruit and train grassroots volunteers for the Congress Party.

"She's a very good listener," Mr Desai says. "And she asks questions. I told her not long ago about the need to sustain economic liberalisation and reforms. She replied, 'I agree with you. But I also meet the kind of people you might never meet - the very poorest and destitute. There has to be activism on their behalf. They cannot be ignored. They have to be actively targeted by policymakers.'"

But her very closest advisers are none other than Mrs Gandhi's two children, Mr Rahul Gandhi, who's now a member of the Lok Sabha, and Mrs Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a mother of two small children for whom Sonia regularly baby-sits. Political wags in New Delhi call Mrs Gandhi and her children "India's troika." Rahul and Priyanka reinforced Mrs Gandhi's decision not to become Prime Minister. Having lost their father and their grandmother to assassins, they were fearful for their mother.

"She took the right decision," says Mr A. B. Bardhan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, who adds that he's a personal admirer of Mrs Gandhi. "A courageous, elegant woman, totally committed to India's future," was how he characterized his political ally in a recent conversation.

That seemed as good an indication as any that the Left isn't about to pull its support from the UPA, thereby creating a political challenge to Mrs Gandhi.

For a woman who holds no office other than president of the Indian National Congress Party - which leads the ruling 13-party coalition of the United Progressive Alliance - the wielding of power is undertaken through persuasion. Because she single-handedly revived the moribund Congress Party - which was given no chance of a comeback by the pundits and pollsters in the election campaign for the Lok Sabha, the 545-member Lower House of Parliament - Mrs Gandhi's directives are pretty much diktat. Few major government policy decisions are taken without consulting her.

She has also been accorded Cabinet status because of her leadership position in the Lok Sabha, where she - and not Prime Minister Singh - heads the UPA contingent. This means that, technically at least, Mrs Gandhi has access to any government file she wishes, something that her unrelenting foes in the BJP have decried. "Foul!" says Mr L. K. Advani, the BJP veteran and former Home Minister.

Mr Advani's hostility toward Mrs Gandhi is deepened by the fact that the BJP has few prospects of returning to power any time soon. Some people close to Mrs Gandhi suggest that the UPA government will not last its full five-year term - not because its parliamentary supporters on the Left are likely to withdraw their backing over policy differences, especially on Mrs Gandhi's brand of populist but free market economics.

Rather, there's a feeling in political circles that Mrs Gandhi will herself want to call elections within a year or two. That's because, with her popularity in the stratosphere, it's almost certain that the Congress Party will return to power with a majority in its own right. No need then to rely on the Left - or anyone else - for parliamentary support.

And then? Mrs Gandhi might well become Prime Minister through popular acclaim. Or she may anoint her son, Rahul, who's now only 34 years old. In fact, the idea of a youthful Prime Minister is especially intriguing: the median age of Indians is just 24.3 years, and a young chief executive may well be the appropriate person to articulate the needs of India's ambitious, educated youths who want their country to become an economic superpower. While Rahul Gandhi may be a political novice, he will have a tried, tested and skilled figure to guide him - his mother. Indians, after all, love the politics of dynasty.

Just the other day, Lord Swraj Paul, an Indian expatriate entrepreneur who sits in Britain's House of Lords and who has been a steadfast supporter of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for more than five decades, made an observation about Mrs Gandhi. She had not only matured as a politician, Lord Paul said, but she had become "very serene."

"It's as if Sonia has found her destiny in leadership," Lord Paul said. "She has paid a great personal price because of family tragedies. But she seems very much at peace with herself now."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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