Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sonia Gandhi: Life Sometimes Involves Being Chosen

Simon of Cyrene, the man who was press-ganged into carrying the cross for Jesus on his way to crucifixion, is the patron saint of all those whose lives are dramatically shaped by forces that are too great to resist.

Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress tells the story of how her political life was chosen for her in this excerpt from her two lectures:

With all the political twists and reversals that formed the background of our first 13 years of marriage, our domestic life had remained relatively tranquil. Then suddenly our world was devastated by a succession of tragedies. In June 1980, my husband's only brother died in an air-crash. My mother-in-law [Indira Gandhi] was shattered. Her younger son had been active in public life. She now turned to my husband for support. He was tormented by the choice he had to make, between protecting the life he had chosen and stepping forward to his mother's side when she needed him most. Months elapsed before I could bring myself to accept that if he felt such astrong sense of duty to his mother, I would stand by his decision. In 1981 he was elected to Parliament.

Though I often traveled with him to his constituency and became involved in welfare work there, my main concern remained to ensure a warm and serene environment at home. Politics had now entered our lives more directly, but I resisted its further ingress.

Four years later came the event that shook our nation and forever altered the destiny of our family. My mother-in-law, the pivot of our lives, was assassinated by her own bodyguards in our home. Within hours of her death, the Congress party asked my husband to take over the leadership of the party and government. Even as I pleaded with him not to accept, I realized that he had no option. I feared for his life. But his sense of responsibility to the country, and to the legacy of his mother and grandfather, were too deeply. ingrained in him. The life we had chosen was now irrevocably over.

One month later, he led the Congress Party to a landslide victory in the general elections. He was 40 years old when he became Prime Minister. I now had official duties as the Prime Minister's wife. But I also had to balance this with our family life, bringing up our children and ensuring they had as normal an existence as possible, given the extensive security restrictions around us all.

Our world had been overturned with the death of my mother-in-law. As often happens when one loses a loved one, I sought to reach out to her through her writings. I immersed myself in editing two volumes of letters between her and her father. Through most of her youth, while her father was in British jails, their loving and close relationship found expression in a flourishing correspondence, recording a rich and vivid interplay between two lively minds. These exchanges brought alive to me the freedom struggle as it was felt and acted by two people who went on to play important roles in shaping modern India. Along with the books of Jawaharlal Nehru, which I had read earlier, they provided a philosophical and historical underpinning to my direct experience of observing my husband as he carried forward their vision for India.

I accompanied him on his travels to the remotest and poorest parts of the country. We were welcomed into people's huts and homes. They opened their hearts to him, speaking of their sufferings, as well as their hopes and aspirations. I came to understand and share his feelings for them, to see what it was that drove him to work as he did with so much energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail. His commitment to making a real difference to their lives brought a fresh and vigorous approach to the imperatives of combining growth with social justice. He mobilized Indian scientists and technologists to tackle basic areas like telecommunications, drinking water, mass immunization and literacy. It is a matter of satisfaction to me to see so many of the seeds lie sowed now yielding flourishing harvests. To name a few: India's recognition as an IT power in the world owes much to him; space satellites and telephone networks are improving the living standards of large segments of our population, especially the rural and urban poor; India's entrepreneurial talents, which began to be unshackled in the early 1980s, are now spearheading our country's impressive rate of economic growth; the revival of local self-government institutions is strengthening the foundations of our democracy. These were all cherished endeavors of his. But the time given to him by Fate was all too short.

My husband remained Prime Minister for five years. Soon after came the moment I had been dreading since the trauma of my mother-in-law's death. On May 21, 1991, while campaigning in the national elections, he was assassinated by terrorists. The Congress Party asked me to become its leader in his place; I declined, instinctively recoiling from a political milieu that had so devastated my life and that of my children.

For the next several years I withdrew into myself. I drew comfort and strength from the thousands of people who shared our grief, cherished my husband's memory, and offered my children and me their love and their support. We set up a foundation to take forward some of the initiatives closest to his heart.

The years that followed saw change and turbulence in India. Economic growth was accelerating. New groups and communities, long deprived, were seeking their legitimate share. Democracy was making India much more egalitarian, but it was also giving new power to some old forces—forces that sought to polarize and mobilize communities along religious lines. They threatened the very essence of India, the diversity of faiths and cultures, languages and ways of life that have sprung from its soil and taken root in it.

The Congress Party was being buffeted by these currents. This was the party that had fought for India's independence and nurtured its infant democracy till it became a robust institution. It now found itself in the midst of uncertainty and turmoil. In 1996 it lost the national elections. Pressure began to build up from a large number of Congress workers across the country urging me to emerge from my seclusion and enter public life.

Could I stand aside and watch as the forces of bigotry continued in their campaigns to spread division and discord? Could I ignore my own commitment to the values and principles of the family I had married into, values and principles for which they lived and died? Could I betray that legacy and turn away from it? I knew my own limitations, but I could no longer stand aside. Such were the circumstances under which the life of politics chose me.

I was elected President of the Congress Party in 1998 when it was in Opposition. This gave me an opportunity to travel to all corners of the country. I found the people at large responded to me spontaneously. Intuitively, they seemed to understand that, like them, I too valued their traditions, their philosophy and their way of life. This seemed to build a bond between us, especially with the poor who welcomed me and opened their hearts without hesitation.

Sonia Gandhi, ‘The Secular Life: Extract from Two Addresses Given in Europe in 2006 and 2007’, ed. Tayeb A Kamali, 20: An Anthology Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of the Higher Colleges of Technology, United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi: HCT Press, 2007), 210-213.

Image: Sonia Gandhi.