Writing a biography of Sonia Gandhi is no easy task. The first obstacle for those few who have tried is that they gain no access to the famously secluded 64-year-old Indian leader herself. Any personal insights are restricted to the handful of interviews she has given over the past 20 years.
Rani Singh’s Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, an Indian Destiny is a lesson in how difficult it is to get beyond the semi-official version of this remarkable woman’s fairy-tragic story to break new ground.
This new book by the former BBC journalist is a historical primer on Gandhi’s journey from a modest upbringing in northern Italy to become the torchbearer of India’s most powerful family. But, like other biographers, she struggles to move beyond the bloody events that unfolded around former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian bride to tell us more about her fight to gain acceptance as a leader of the world’s largest democracy.
Nor does a book heavy on the premierships of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, but light on current challenges, focus on how Sonia Gandhi exercises power as president of the ruling Congress party. That question is one of the most puzzling about contemporary India and one that international partners as well as domestic political commentators struggle to answer.
Many consider Gandhi, a stoic sari-clad figure who champions the poor, as a force for good motivated by duty to her slain husband’s memory. But more critical analysts consider her exercise of distant, dynastic power from her home-cum-office next to her party’s headquarters in New Delhi as corrosive to India’s parliamentary system.
Singh tends towards an admiring approach to India’s ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which makes the book, based on 100 interviews, a well-researched tribute but leaves it lacking a critical edge. By the end of her book the author begins to regard mundane acts by the heavily protected Gandhis as extraordinary feats of magnanimity. For instance, she writes in near disbelief about how 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the family’s scion and a possible future prime minister, uses an ATM in Mumbai and takes a commuter train.
The same deferential approach is found in the local press. Leading political editors acknowledge that Sonia Gandhi is the least understood Indian leader. They say that the “total person” is hardly revealed in spite of election victories in 2004 and again in 2009 – quite a feat of secrecy in a vibrant democracy where politicians are relentlessly trailed by TV crews.
Singh’s book is unlikely to ruffle feathers in the way Javier Moro’s El Sari Rojo, or The Red Sari, did three years ago. Moro, a Spanish writer, found out what it is like to break in on India’s ruling dynasty uninvited. His “first-person” narrative of Gandhi’s life prompted her lawyers to try to ban it in India, claiming the dramatisation was full of slurs and distortions.
Two aspects of his characterisation rankled in particular. One is that as a European she had “outsider status” among India’s majority Hindus – something she has overcome over the years. Another was that she contemplated a life outside India with her children after their father’s assassination in 1991.
Singh’s book gives light treatment to Gandhi’s deliberate Indianisation. Where she has insight is her subject’s anxious devotion to Rajiv and near-collapse after his death. Memorable is Singh’s description of Gandhi doubling up in emotional pain when she consigns her husband’s ashes to the waters of the Ganges.
The book also suffers from its failure to capture the shortcomings of Gandhi’s ruling coalition over the past two years. Since its re-election in 2009 the United Progressive Alliance has stumbled badly. A rumpus surrounding mammoth corruption scandals has dominated the national narrative, politicians and business executives are in jail and the legislative agenda has stalled. Gandhi has remained largely silent and was absent for much of the summer undergoing surgery in the US.
Singh describes writing about Gandhi as “the toughest challenge of her career”. It is a reminder that one of India’s most tantalising stories remains untold.
James Lamont is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief
Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, an Indian Destiny, by Rani Singh, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£16.99, 288 pages