Agence France Presse
April 6, 2004 Tuesday
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi a tough sell despite years in Indian
by ELIZABETH ROCHE
Since her entry into politics in 1998, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi has
transformed herself into the heir of India’s first family and oldest
political party, but although she speaks Hindi and wears a sari she
remains a tough sell.
As she, on Tuesday, completes six years in active politics and files
her nomination papers to contest for parliamentary elections starting
April 20, Gandhi is facing a tough test as chief of the 119-year-old
Falling to her is the task of reviving a declining Congress and
leading it to victory in the ballots — an impossible task according
to dozens of opinion polls conducted in the past few months which all
point to a clear win for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP-led
The 57-year-old Gandhi is pitted against 79-year-old Prime Minister
Atal Behari Vajpayee, a wily and seasoned politician with five
decades of experience of public life behind him.
In the face-off, Gandhi, widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi, trails way behind due to her relative lack of experience and
an ongoing row over her Italian origins.
Giving further ammunition to the BJP is the fact that Gandhi, born
into a middle-class building contractor’s family in Orbassano,
northern Italy, only took Indian citizenship in the early 1980s —
more than a decade after her marriage.
It is not as if she has not worked hard to dispel her “foreigner”
Long ago she stopped wearing the chic skirts and blouses that were
her trademark attire in the early years of marriage to Rajiv. The
western clothing has been replaced by beautiful cotton or silk saris
and the salwar kameez — a long-sleeved tunic and crisply cut
Gone are any visible symbols of her Catholic faith, while a
distinctive red Hindu sacred thread now adorns her wrist.
Never a regular churchgoer, Gandhi soon after her entry into politics
in 1998, however, visited the famous Tirupati temple in the southern
Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to seek the deity’s blessings.
She has since visited a number of temples and even took a dip in the
holy Ganges river in 2001 during a “Kumbh Mela”, or Nectar Pot fair,
in a bid to silence her critics, notes journalist Rasheed Kidwai in
his biography of Gandhi.
If anything betrays her foreign origins, however, it is her accent,
whether she is speaking English or Hindi.
Kidwai, in his book, says the only one thing that Gandhi’s husband
and mother-in-law insisted she do immediately after marriage in 1968
was to learn Hindi so that she could speak the language at the dinner
Her Hindi classes started immediately thereafter, contrary to claims
by her political opponents that she only began mastering the language
after her entry into politics.
“(Today) she speaks Hindi more fluently than many Indians who
criticise her foreign origins,” said Malvika Singh, columnist and
publisher of Seminar magazine. “She is as Indian as any one of us.”
A survey by an English weekly in February found that 28 of Congress’s
40 top and mid-level leaders said Gandhi’s foreign birth was a
“liability” for the party.
But 39 of the 40 said she was the only person who could keep the
Some question why India, with its billion-plus population, could not
produce an opposition leader — and prime ministerial candidate —
who is not “foreign born”.
“These people forget that Congress has had foreigners heading it
before — Annie Beseant and C.F Andrews — just to mention two,” said
a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named.
He was referring to two Britons who headed the Congress soon after it
was founded in 1885 and before it led India to freedom from British
rule in 1947.
Some point out that France, Canada and Belgium all have had “foreign
origin” persons occupying top posts.
Eduard Balladur, who was France’s prime minister in the mid-1990s, is
of Armenian origin; John Turner, who was Canada’s prime minister in
1984, was born in Richmond, England; while Jean-Luc Deheane, who
until recently was premier of Belgium, was born in Montpellier,
Dilip Cherian, who heads Perfect Relations, the firm which has been
hired by the Congress to help its campaign, says he and his team are
“focussing on the party’s ideology rather than on Sonia Gandhi”.
“It is a party with more than 100 years of history behind it. We are
saying that it is still a party which has relevance in today’s
context, it has a message for the young, old and all sections of
Political analyst Yashwant Deshmukh says there are “some sections who
are bothered about her foreign origins but by and large most people
“The problem is she is pitted against Vajpayee — who with his years
in public life — comes off as a superior product. People don’t so
much care about her foreigner tag as much, I think, as her lack of
experience,” he said.