Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi (born 9 December 1946) is an Indian politician. She is the president of the Indian National Congress, the left-of-centre political party, which has governed India for most of its post-independence history. She took over as the party leader in 1998, seven years after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India, and remained in office for twenty-two years.

Born in a small village near Vicenza, Italy, Gandhi was raised in a Roman Catholic family. After completing her primary education at local schools, she moved for language classes to Cambridge, England, where she met Rajiv Gandhi, and later married him in 1968. She then moved to India and started living with her mother-in-law, the then-Prime Minister of IndiaIndira Gandhi, at the latter’s New Delhi residence. Sonia Gandhi, however, kept away from the public sphere, even during the years of her husband’s premiership.

Following her husband’s assassination, Gandhi was invited by Congress leaders to lead the party, but she declined. She agreed to join politics in 1997 after much pleading from the party; the following year, she was nominated for party president, and elected over Jitendra Prasada.  Under her leadership, the Congress went on to form the government post the 2004 elections in coalition with other centre-left political parties. Gandhi has since been credited for being instrumental in formulating the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which was re-elected to power in 2009. Gandhi declined the premiership following the 2004 victory; she instead led the ruling alliance and the National Advisory Council.

Over the course of her career, Gandhi presided over the advisory councils credited for the formation and subsequent implementation of such rights-based development and welfare schemes as the right to informationFood security bill, and MNREGA, as she drew criticism related to the Bofors scandal and the National Herald Case. Her foreign birth has also been a subject of much debate and controversy. Gandhi’s active participation in politics began to reduce during the latter half of the UPA government’s second term owing to health concerns. She stepped down as the Congress president in December 2017, but returned to lead the party in August 2019. Although she never held any public office in the government of India, Gandhi has been widely described as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, and is often listed among the most powerful women in the world.

 

Sonia Maino was born on 9 December 1946 to Stefano and Paola Maino in Lusiana (in Maini street), a historically Cimbrian-speaking village about 35 km from Vicenza in VenetoItaly. She was one of three siblings: Sonia, Nadia and Anoushka, raised in a traditional Roman Catholic Christian family. Sonia spent her adolescence in Orbassano, a town near Turin. She attained primary education attending the local Catholic schools; one of her early teachers described her as “a diligent little girl, [who] studied as much as was necessary”.

Stefano, who was a building mason established a small construction business in Orbassano. He had fought against the Soviet military alongside Hitler‘s Wehrmacht on the eastern front in World War II, was a loyal supporter of Benito Mussolini and Italy’s National Fascist Party. The family house had leather bound books on writings and speeches of Mussolini. Stefano had named Sonia and her elder sister Nadia in the memory of the Italian participation in the Eastern Front. He died in 1983.  Gandhi has two sisters who still reside in Orbassano along with their mother.

Gandhi completed her schooling at the age of 13; her final report card read: “intelligent, diligent, committed […] would succeed well at the high school for teachers”. She aspired to become a flight attendant. In 1964, she went to study English at the Bell Educational Trust‘s language school in the city of Cambridge. The following year, she met Rajiv Gandhi at the Varsity Restaurant, where she was working as a part-time waitress, while he was enrolled for an engineering degree in the Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. In this context, the Times, London reported, “Mrs Gandhi was an 18-year-old student at a small language college in Cambridge in 1965, […] when she met a handsome young engineering student”. The couple married in 1968, in a Hindu ceremony, following which she moved into the house of her mother-in-law and then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

The couple had two children, Rahul Gandhi (born 1970) and Priyanka Vadra (born 1972). Despite belonging to the influential Nehru family, Sonia and Rajiv avoided all involvement in politics. Rajiv worked as an airline pilot while Sonia took care of her family. She spent considerable amount of time with her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi; she recalled her experience in a 1985 interview with the Hindi-language magazine Dharmyug, “She [Indira] showered me with all her affection and love”. Soon after the latter’s ousting from office in 1977 in the aftermath of the Indian Emergency, the Rajiv family contemplated moving abroad for a short time. When Rajiv entered politics in 1982 after the death of his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash on 23 June 1980, Sonia continued to focus on her family and avoided all contact with the public.

 

Personal life

Sonia is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, elder son of Indira Gandhi. She has two children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi.

In August 2011, she underwent successful surgery for cervical cancerin the United States at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She returned to India on 9 September after her treatment. Speaking on 18 July 2012, about her son taking a larger role in the party, she said that it is for Rahul to decide.

Sonia Gandhi was listed as one of the fifty best-dressed over 50s by the Guardian in March 2013. She follows the style quote “Simple is Stylish” and looks no further than mother-in-law Indira Gandhi’s “innate sense of fashion”.

According to an affidavit filed during the 2014 Indian general election, Sonia had declared assets worth ₹9.28 crore (US$1.52 million), with ₹2.81 crore (US$460,000) in movable and ₹6.47 crore (US$1.06 million) in immovable properties. This was an almost six-fold increase since her declaration in the last election in 2009; party officials attributed this to a switch from book value to market value for asset valuation.

Honours and recognition

Gandhi was seen as the most powerful politician of India from 2004 – 2014,  and variously listed among the most powerful people and women listings by magazines.

In 2013, Sonia Gandhi was ranked 21st among world’s most powerful and 9th most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine.

In 2007, she had been named the third most powerful woman in the world by the same magazine and was ranked 6th in exclusive list in 2007.

In 2010, Gandhi ranked as the ninth most powerful person on the planet by Forbes magazine. She was ranked 12 in 2012 in Forbes’ powerful people list.

Sonia was also named among the Time 100 most influential people in the world for the years 2007 and 2008.  New Statesman listed Sonia Gandhi at number 29 in their annual survey of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures” in the year 2010.

Year Name Awarding organisation
2008 Honorary Doctorate (Literature) University of Madras
2006 Order of King Leopold Government of Belgium
2006 Honorary Doctorate Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Brussels University)

Books featuring Sonia Gandhi