Journey From A
Small Town In Tuscany
By Randeep Ramesh
14 May, 2004
Gandhi's rise from small-town, postwar Italy to the whitewashed British
Raj bungalows of Delhi is a story of love and death in India's political
cauldron, culminating in the most sensational victory since India became
independent in 1947. Yesterday
Mrs Gandhi, née Maino, the daughter of a Tuscan building contractor,
was on the brink of becoming India's prime minister after defeating
the most potent political force in the country's recent history: Hindu
In a dramatic and
unexpected result which will have deep implications for the world's
largest democracy, Mrs Gandhi's Congress party swept the ruling Bharatiya
Janata party (BJP) from power. Her shock victory was put down to her
ability to woo India's millions of rural poor.
For Sonia, it is
in the small town of Orbassano, seven miles from Italy's busy metropolis
of Turin, that her extraordinary political journey begins. It was here
in the Tuscan countryside that she was born in 1946, her father, Stephano,
doting on his "little princess" and providing his three daughters
with a strict Catholic education.
Her mother and two
sisters still live in Orbassano, in a terracotta-coloured two-storey
house on the outskirts of town.
At first glance
there is little to link this sleepy part of northern Italy to the corridors
of power in India. Residents of Orbassano told India's Outlook magazine
recently they could barely remember the young woman whom most describe
as a "hard working, intelligent girl" with a "very good
But in a small way
the Gandhi family, which produced three Indian prime ministers and looks
set in Sonia Gandhi to have another, has left its mark in rural Italy.
The road leading east out of Orbassano is called Via Rajiv Gandhi, after
Sonia's late husband and the last member of the world's most successful
political dynasty to be Indian prime minister.
Sonia Gandhi is
the most improbable of political leaders in modern day India. She became
an Indian citizen in 1983, 15 years after she married Rajiv at the age
The two met at Cambridge,
where she was studying English and Rajiv was trying, and ultimately
failing, to get an engineering degree.
Arriving in India
in 1968, the young Mrs Gandhi struggled to cope with the country's deeply
ingrained culture. At first, she did not like Indian food or clothes
and there was a minor uproar when she was pictured in a miniskirt sucking
on a lolly.
Like the Kennedys
in America, the Gandhis are India's first family of politics, whose
rise has been marred by tragedy. As a daughter-in-law in the Gandhi
clan, Sonia had a ringside view of history. The sight was bloody and
Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Her
husband, Rajiv, whom she had implored not to enter politics, was blown
up by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991.
After her husband's
death, Mrs Gandhi quietly departed from public life. But she was wooed
back by a floundering Congress party in 1997 and agreed to campaign,
hoping that the Gandhi name would cast a spell over the electorate.
Her start in Indian politics was difficult. Despite being a talented
linguist who can converse in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian,
her Hindi could be at best described as colloquial. Dressed in saris,
she read short speeches with the Hindi words typed out in Roman script
rather than the curls and lines of the Indian language's alphabet.
Sonia also struggled
to cope with the intrigue and betrayal that marks India politics. She
became aloof and distant, rarely granting interviews. But still the
adoring crowds, who considered her a brave widow, turned out in huge
There were political
miscalculations, most notably when she claimed after the 1999 elections
to have a majority in parliament without checking an ally would lend
its support. The BJP went on to form the government which yesterday
Mrs Gandhi toppled.
The reason for her
success appears to be a combination of hard work and her name. Now fluent
in Hindi, she can attract the masses and speak to them in a language
While her grasp
of policy issues appears at times shaky, she has shaped a winning strategy
for the Congress party, which has been out of office for nearly a decade.
At a press conference last night she was at ease parrying questions
from reporters, telling them that peace with Pakistan was an idea her
rivals had appropriated.
It was also her
idea to target rural India, which remains chained to poverty and has
been left behind as the urban centres modernise. A series of barnstorming
speeches by the Congress president drew the crowds. Her message that
India did not shine outside of its conurbations was successful because
it was true.
Mrs Gandhi defused
the "foreign origins" issue which plagued her earlier attempts
to become prime minister. Hindu nationalists cast her as an agent of
Rome while they offered Ram, a warrior god who has come to symbolise
Hinduism. She defiantly told New Delhi TV earlier this year: "I
never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I am not. I am Indian."
By bringing into
politics her son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, she also added glamour
to the hustings and sent a strong message that the Gandhi dynasty was
here to stay. She also made it clear that Hindus, who make up 80% of
India's 1 billion people, had nothing to fear from a Congress party
which drew support from minority religions.
Asked by an interviewer
during campaigning what principles she draws upon in making moral decisions
in family life and politics, she replied: "I suppose these Catholic
values are at the back of my mind.
"I feel very
strongly about India being a secular state. By secular state I mean
one that will encompass all religions. The present government doesn't
stand for that."