A dramatised excerpt from the story of the day Sonia Gandhi prepared to turn down the post of Prime Minister of India in 2004.
by Javier Moro
In the afternoon of 15 May, after having been elected unanimously as the leader of the Parliamentary Party, Sonia Gandhi addresses her MPs. “Here I stand in the place occupied by my great masters, Nehruji, Indiraji, and Rajivji. Their lives have guided my path. Their courage and devotion to India have given me the strength to continue along their path years after their martyrdom. Soon we will have here, in the central government, a coalition led by the Congress party. We have triumphed in the face of all the forecasts. We have overcome in spite of the ill-omened predictions. In the name of all of you, I want to express with all my heart my gratitude to the people of India. Thank you.”
The hall bursts into an enthusiastic ovation and then the MPs prepare to congratulate her personally. They all want to get close to the architect of so much joy and expectation, the person who holds the key to power. In that hall, which has been witness to so many national dramas, so many bitter arguments – a festive atmosphere now reigns. Sonia is radiant. There is so much commotion that the MPs have to stand in line to shake her hand or, even better, to exchange a witty comment… Among the last waiting his turn is a young man, dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, her son, Rahul.
However, the veterans and those closest to Sonia are worried because in her speech, there was not a single word about her role in the new coalition. When they suggest that she should go to the president the next day to formally request permission to form a government, Sonia wriggles out of it by saying that the Left has still not confirmed its support, which is really just an excuse. The fact is that she wants to use all the time available to think about it.
After spending a whole day at home with her children weighing the pros and cons of the situation, she meets her closest allies. She has something important to say to them. They can see it coming: “I think I should not accept the position of prime minister.” She does not say it categorically, as though her decision was firm, she says it as if she wanted to judge the reaction. “I do not want to be the cause of division within the country,” she adds, leaving them all uncomfortable and disconcerted. And she goes on to suggest a Solomon-like solution, which causes some annoyance: her suggestion is that she should continue as president of the party… and that Manmohan Singh should be prime minister. It is a revolutionary idea because it means a two- pronged leadership, an experiment in governance.
A deep silence greets her words. Sonia goes on, “He is honourable, he has an excellent reputation as an economist, and he has experience in administration… I am convinced he will be a great prime minister.” But the suggestion leaves them cold. It is well-known that Manmohan Singh has no charisma. He is a serious man, a technocrat, not a politician. “It’s like saying this victory has served for nothing. The coalition will not hold together without a Gandhi,” says one of the Congress leaders. Neither does the idea dazzle the more veteran leaders, some of whom have been members of the party for fifty years. Manmohan Singh is a relative newcomer.
But above all, it is the reality of not having a Gandhi in the key position what worries her people. At this point, the mystique of the name counts for more than anything else. “It will be the most short-lived government in history,” some predict. Even the two party members who complained in private of having “an uneducated Italian housewife” as leader beg her to agree to be prime minister. In one week, she has gone from being a plain “housewife” to being “a friend, a guide, the nation’s saviour”.
In the afternoon, Manmohan Singh arrives at number 10, Janpath. It is hard for him to make his way through the crowd of MPs and followers who block the entrance. There are so many people that they do not fit inside the house. They wait in the garden or on the street, in the blazing summer sun, for their leader to make a decision. For Sonia, the situation is familiar; she has the impression of having lived through this already, when they were trying to convince her to accept the presidency of the party. However much she tries to argue, they do not accept her decision. They do not understand how she can refuse the position with the most power, which is the dream of all politicians. It is unacceptable to them, in spite of knowing that for Sonia, power has never been a goal in itself. They know that she is in politics out of a personal commitment, because fate wanted it to be that way. “It would be a disaster for the party, for the coalition, for the country…” they say again and again. “Sonia, don’t abandon us.”
One of the congress leaders, Era Anbarasu threatens to set himself on fire if she turns down the job. Sonia becomes alarmed and capitulates. Two hours after having suggested that perhaps she would not accept the role of prime minister, Manmohan Singh comes out into the garden and announces in his gentle voice: “Mrs Gandhi has agreed to meet with the president tomorrow morning.” A murmur of approval sweeps through the crowd. The announcement relaxes things. Those who begin to leave do so convinced that the pressure has worked. In the end, the leader has agreed to take on her responsibility. The Congress party will be in power again, under the leadership of a Gandhi.
For Sonia, the problem is how to get those who venerate her and all those who expect everything of her to swallow the bitter pill. How to get them to see reason? How can they think that she can govern this country on her own? The Opposition will give her no refuge: every day they will throw the matter of her origins in her face. Some madman will end up killing her; she is convinced of it. Besides, she does not have much experience.
What she needs is to be alone. In her room, she opens the windows before she goes to bed. She breathes the hot air in deeply. All her childhood, she slept with the windows wide open, in spite of the cold. Today, she again feels that old distress. It is a feeling of drowning that comes back every time she has to take an important decision. Every time she feels unbearable pressure mounting.
She turns off the air-conditioning and leaves the window open. The warm breeze, brings no relief. Finally, it all goes quiet, just the way she likes it. In these last few days, her home has been like a madhouse. All that noise has prevented her from hearing her inner voice. She needs silence to get in touch with herself, to listen to herself. To know what to do tomorrow. Or rather, how to do it.
Excerpted with permission from The Red Sari: A Dramatized Biography of Sonia Gandhi, Javier Moro, translated by Peter J. Hearn, Roli Books.