Authors who take on writing about India’s Nehru-Gandhi family do so at their own peril. Members of India’s ruling Congress party, the political vehicle of the Nehru-Gandhis, have successfully derailed a number of projects they felt besmirched the family name and weakened the party that has ruled India for 51 years of its 64-year history as a nation state. The latest spate of Congress activism has focused on attacking works they deem harmful to the image of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of Congress and the nation’s most powerful politician.
Last year, Congress stalwarts complained that Spanish author Javier Moro’s “The Red Saree,” a fictionalized account of Ms. Gandhi’s life, was libelous in part due to one section where Ms. Gandhi considers quitting India to return to Italy. Roli Books, the New Delhi-based publisher, has demurred over bringing out an English translation of the book in the Indian market amid threats by Congress of legal action. And a few years back, plans for a film of Ms. Gandhi’s life, starring Monica Bellucci, the Italian actress, were shelved after complaints from Congress apparatchiks that the script was to be based on an unauthorized biography by an Indian journalist. The latest work to tackle Ms. Gandhi’s story, “Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny,” which was publicly launched Monday by Palgrave Macmillan and will be available in India next week, is unlikely to face such challenges.
Rani Singh, a former BBC journalist, has written a favorable, at times cloying, account of Ms. Gandhi’s rise to power from unlikely beginnings that does little to challenge the notion in Congress circles that those bearing the Nehru-Gandhi name stand, like a royal family, above criticism. Ms. Singh’s narrative is strongest when recounting Ms. Gandhi’s early life. Today, Ms. Gandhi is known as a sphinx-like politician who rarely shows her emotions and eschews the media. Ms. Singh ekes out a different portrait of a young Sonia studying with nuns in Italy and then at an English language school in Cambridge, where she meets Rajiv Gandhi, her future husband. In one episode, Ms. Gandhi tips a plate of spaghetti over a drunk friend’s head after he added sodium glutamate to the dish as a prank. Ms. Gandhi is drawn as a beautiful “well turned out” individual who enjoyed socializing and was never short of money. After marriage, the couple lived in New Delhi with Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister and Rajiv’s mother. Ms. Gandhi won her mother-in-law’s trust by filling the role of homemaker, while Rajiv worked as a commercial airline pilot. “The reliable, discreet, and reserved Sonia was just the kind of trustworthy tonic Indira needed to maintain her home front,” Ms. Singh writes.
The couple’s quiet life was shattered by the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, which pushed Rajiv in to the political limelight. (His younger brother Sanjay, who Indira groomed as her political heir, had died a few years earlier in a plane crash.) After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, after one term as prime minister, Ms. Gandhi fended off requests from Congress leaders to head the party. Ms. Singh did not get access to Ms. Gandhi for this book and much of the narrative feels like potted history. She does not drop any bombshells. For readers new to India, though, Ms. Singh does a good job at providing historical context to key moments in Ms. Gandhi’s life, offering an easily digestible primer on India’s modern history. She also convincingly shows how Ms. Gandhi evolves from a reticent to a consummate politician. After Rajiv’s death, she turns down the Congress presidency to focus on running a nongovernmental organization to promote her late husband’s interests: rural poverty, women’s emancipation and technology.
As I have stated before, I really wish that Mira Nair would produce, write and direct a movie about Sonia Ghandi. Her story should be told to the masses by the best one of them all! I would love to see Hollywood offer Mira the same Carte Blanche deal that they gave her with the movie Amelia Earhart.