Sonia Maino, now Sonia Gandhi, was born into a family of modest means in an Italian village called Ovassanjo, 80 km from Turin, on Dec. 9, 1946. Born to a building contractor and his wife, she was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic household along with her two sisters. She went to Cambridge University to study English in 1964. Her life changed forever when she met her future husband, Rajiv Gandhi, who was studying engineering at Cambridge at that time. They were married in 1968 after three years of courtship which began in a Greek restaurant in the university town.
The simple ceremony was held on Vasant Panchami day in February, the same day when Indira Gandhi married Feroze decades earlier. The wedding was a simple ceremony in the garden of 1, Safdarjang Road. Sonia wore a pink sari made from cotton which Nehru had spun while in prison the same sari which Indira had worn for her wedding.
After marriage, Sonia moved into the house of her mother-in-law and then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. She became an instant favourite. Sonia and Indira became extremely fond of each other and their fondness only deepened further with time. However, Sonia initially disliked Indian food and clothes and caused controversy when she was photographed wearing a miniskirt. But she spent the 1970 becoming steeped in Indian culture. Although she has learned Hindi, she is not a fluent speaker of the language. She keenly observed Indira, as she fought a variety of political battles.
Sonia has also been a witness to a series of tragedies. In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her decision to send troops into their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. Seven years later, the tragedy struck the Gandhi family again when her husband Rajiv was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber during an election rally at Sriperumbudur.
Sonia had shown aversion to politics for long. She not only detested politics, but opposed her husband Rajiv entering it and it is said, she had even threatened to divorce Rajiv if he ever entered politics. This was because she feared losing Rajiv. Eventually, after Sanjay Gandhi’s death in 1980, Rajiv resigned from Indian Airlines to join politics—a decision believed to have been arrived at after long talks with Sonia. In 1984, after the death of Indira Gandhi, Sonia became a full-fledged Indian citizen.
Married into India’s best known family of Nehru-Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi became a primary member of the Congress before the Calcutta Congress Plenary Session in August 1997. Since the unfortunate death of her husband and India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia led a life of near recluse for six years but for her appearances at a few official functions. She even declined the top job of the Congress organisation offered to her on a platter immediately after the death of her husband on May 21, 1991.
Barring few political statements, Sonia hid her emotions behind a thick veil of secrecy keeping observers guessing about whether she nursed political intentions at all. But fawning Congressmen, looking for a charismatic personality to lead the party to electoral success, kept sending their appeals to her to come and take over the party.
In 1998, by becoming the president of India’s century-old Congress party, Sonia weaved a dramatic way to a place in history. She is the third woman of foreign origin to hold the prestigious post after Annie Beasant and Nelli Sengupta. She is also the fifth from the Nehru family to take over the Congress reins after Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
She is also the eighth person of the foreign origin to be the Congress president. She is also the dual chief of Indian National Congress and its Parliamentary party, and has emulated her husband, mother-in-law and grandfather-in-law Rajiv, Indira and Nehru who all held the two posts during their career.
Initially seen as a reluctant and almost reclusive politician, Sonia Gandhi was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1999. The name ‘Gandhi’ is still revered in India and Congress looked to Sonia to translate that feeling into votes. Her political opponents attempted to rake up her Italian descent as an election issue saying the choice for voters was between an Indian or foreign leader. But their appeal to xenophobia apparently fell on deaf ears.
After an excruciating spell of suspense, Sonia, who long remained something of an enigma to many, campaigned for the Congress in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Observers credit her with preventing a doom for the party, which was not expected to cross even the double digit mark. Her party managed a tally of 141 seats, largely due to her charismatic presence during the campaign.
Travelling the length and breadth of the country in a hurricane election tour, Sonia caught the imagination of the masses, by her emotional speeches in Hindi prepared in advance. Observers commented that Sonia successfully adopted her mother-in-law’s mannerism and style in warming her way to large crowds which had turned up at her election rallies. Thus, she was able to achieve an unexpected election success. Before the surprise results, her future in Indian politics had looked somewhat uncertain.
The election results provided her with a unique opportunity to become India’s Prime Minister. Had she accepted, she would have been India’s first Roman Catholic Prime Minister. But, she sacrificed the post in favour of Dr. Manmohan Singh. However, in the process, she became the torchbearer of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has ruled India for 44 of the years since becoming an independent nation in 1947.
Sonia’s reluctance to enter politics is history as she is not only in the thick of politics, but her children, Rahul and Priyanka, too are in great demand in the Congress circle. The entry of her son Rahul Gandhi as a candidate in the 2009 elections boosted her campaign and she was able to better her success and bring back Congress to power and Dr. Manmohan Singh for the second term.
Besides being an epitome of sacrifice, Sonia set a precedent in 2000 by asking a court to grant clemency to a woman who had played a part in the bomb attack which killed her husband. The bomber, Nalini, had appealed for mercy on the grounds that her seven-year-old daughter would be orphaned if she was hanged. The court later commuted Nalini’s death sentence.
In August 2000, Sonia became a grandmother when her daughter Priyanka gave birth to a son. Sonia is a familiar figure in Amethi, her husband’s parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh which her son Rahul now represents. She herself represents the neighboring seat of Rai Bareilly.
In March 2010, Sonia Gandhi once again became the Chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) with the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister. She had quit the NAC in 2006 over the Office of Profit Controversy. She had also stepped down as the MP from Rae Bareilly but was re-elected. During the first term of UPA Government, she headed the government-funded council which was set up to advice the coalition government on policy matters.