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Talking to Sonia Gandhi



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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May 18, 2009

LONDON - I walk up Sonia Gandhi’s drive way, past  guards with Uzi machine guns, and can’t help thinking that when I came to interview Mrs. Indira Gandhi (Sonia’s mother-in-law) on the eve of her great comeback and massive electoral win, I walked up to her front door and knocked. There were no guards and only one servant to let me in.

I am ushered into Sonia G’s office. She barely acknowledges my presence. “Buon giorno”, I say. There is no reply. I have been warned that she’s cold and she doesn’t offer me a hand. She walks over to me and asks me to sit down.

I look her in the eye and ask my first question to the Italian widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was cruelly blown to smithereens by a female Tamil terrorist, a member of the now defeated Tamil independence struggle in neighbouring Sri Lanka. (It was the Tamils who invented both the suicide bomber and its female variant.)

“Do you mind if I begin with a personal question?” “Yes”, she says. I ask her, the once again victorious chairwoman of the Congress Party, “Wasn’t it difficult to decide to go into politics, knowing the dangers and the terrible toll it has taken on your family? “
“I am at peace about that”, she replies. "I have thought it through”. Then she suddenly interjects, “I hope this isn’t an interview. I just want us to get to know each other a bit.” I reply defensively that Manmohan Singh (to be sworn in as prime minister once again) who fixed me the introduction had said it could be an interview.

We continue, but without writing in my notebook, and I lapse into a gentler, more conversational style. “Why did the pull of politics overcome your inhibitions?” “Congress was in disarray. It couldn’t win an election. And we need to keep India as a secular state, encompassing all religions. (Which in this present election Congress has admirably done, bringing in Moslems and Sikhs in very large numbers, as well as to the usual Hindu voters.)

I ask her about her own religious beliefs and, like her mother-in-law, the murdered Indira Gandhi, she replies, “I’m not religious”. “My parents are not particularly religious although my mother sometimes goes to church. “

“So on what basis do you make moral decisions in family life or in politics?” “I suppose Catholic values are at the back of my head.”

I push on. “What about nuclear weapons? You are one of those with your finger on the button.” She grimaces. A God-spare me kind of look. (Clearly, with her and Manmohan Singh in charge, the Pakistanis must know that the Indian government will never threaten to use its nuclear weapons. Why doesn’t that lead to disarmament, a question that nobody anywhere would give me a straight answer to.
“Zbigniew Brzezinski has recently given me his latest book. I realize from that how none of us have thought seriously about nuclear disarmament.”

I mention Robert McNamara’s book, which firmly advocates total nuclear disarmament for the superpowers, unilaterally for the U.S. if necessary. (McNamara was presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s then hard line Secretary of Defence.) “It is a marvellous book", I say. “You’d be inspired reading it.”

“Yes, I like the man”, she comments. “He’s been here a couple of times for seminars we organized at The Rajiv Gandhi Centre.” I tell her a little about the book and offer to send it to her. She says she’d enjoy the chance to read it. Then, being friendly for the first time, she asks me how my lecture went at the same Rajiv Gandhi Centre (which Manmohan Singh chaired).

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I notice that now her lips are less pressed. She looks me in the eye. I notice the grey strands in her hair. She is no beauty, but she has charm and a quiet dignity. She doesn’t play the Queen Bee (although in fact today she is India’s, flying as high as it’s possible to be in politics).

When I interviewed Indira Gandhi a couple of times she could sometimes be a little coquettish. But not Sonia G - she is straight as a die. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist telling her about one of my interviews with Indira Gandhi. She entertained me with her delightful Henry Kissinger and Peter Sellers stories. She told me about the Peter Sellers’ film, when he made himself up as an Indian and ended up with a beautiful Indian lady in the swimming pool. It was brought to her by the censorship board, so sensitive was the subject matter for a prudish Indian audience.

 “Wasn’t the film a little blue?” I asked. “So what?” she replied. “I couldn’t stop laughing. People can make up their own minds”. Sonia G asks me to send her the interview.

I Know Manmohan Singh is waiting to see her. She moves her hands ever so slightly and I know my time is up.


Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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