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Talking to Sonia Gandhi



Jonathan Power

April 28th, 2004

LONDON - Two weeks before the count we already can be pretty sure of the outcome of the Indian election. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party, the fifty-seven year old widow of the slain prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, will not be the next leader of India.

There is a very slight chance that this is wrong- Indian opinion polling sometimes goes awry. Mrs. Gandhi is the underestimated candidate. She has everything against her- her origins (Italian), her religion (nominally Catholic), her education (modest) and, not least, that this excruciatingly shy woman pales into a shadow compared with her murdered mother in law, Indira Gandhi, the master politician. Even some of her staff are dismissive, calling her Kungi Kureya- Hindi for a mute doll. In fact she comes across as a woman who is not at all fazed at the prospect of moving from housewife to be the ruler of 500 million males. Moreover, many apolitical Indians cannot stand the religious fundamentalism of the incumbent government and may decide at the last moment to vote for her.

It is rare a journalist arriving for an interview with a politician doesn't get a handshake, especially so when they are totally alone. But that is how it was with Sonia Gandhi. I felt left with no alternative but to ask my last question first. I would break the ice or be broken by it. "May I ask you a very personal question?" Quietly but quickly the answer came back, "Yes". "Isn't it difficult to go into the centre of the maelstrom of Indian politics knowing all you do of its dangers and the terrible toll it has taken with two assassinations in your family? Are you really at peace with that?" "I am at peace. I have thought it through."

"Why did the pull of politics overcome your inhibitions? You had long said you would never go into politics." "At the time of the 1998 election Congress was in serious difficulties. We were badly divided and factions were fighting each other. Senior members of the party who had tried to persuade me before came to me again. My children were then grown up. I agreed".

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"Moreover, 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. It is important that Congress is in power."

She looks surprised when I ask her about her own religious convictions. "I'm not religious. My family never was. My father never went to church; my mother did but not every week. I got sent away to boarding school so I suppose that had its effect too."

"So on what principles do you draw on when you make moral decisions, in family life or in politics?" "I suppose these Catholic values are at the back of my mind", she replies without needing to pause to weigh what she is saying. "And how would that affect a decision whether or not in a crisis to use nuclear weapons? Could you press the button?" She grimaces but doesn't answer. The rolled eyes tell it all.    

I break the silence recounting how when Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor I asked him this question. She asked me what his answer was- brutal in a word- and then told me she had just been given his latest book. "But Robert McNamara has a very different view on the value of nuclear weapons." I opine. "I like that man. He's been here a couple of time for seminars we've organized here. I have learnt a lot from him."

The mood has changed. Her lips are no longer pressed. The tension has dissipated. For the first time she is looking me in the eye. I can see she wants to talk about the dilemma of nuclear weapons.  She asks me not to write in detail about this part of the conversation but I am left with the feeling of a moral soul who will not take a step towards war with the equanimity that characterized her mother in law.

We end up talking at length about Mrs. Gandhi senior and the amusing political stories she used to regale me with.

She raises her hands ever so slightly. My time is up. Then as I stand to leave I am moved to tell this obviously solitary and even disconsolate woman what I've never in 40 years of reporting the world told another politician: "I know you are a good person. I can see that. I think India will be in good hands with you and Manmohan at the helm. (Manmohan Singh, her economic advisor and originator of the Indian economic miracle.) Can we keep talking?" She nods and holds out her hand.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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