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Saturday, 9 December 2017

Sonia Gandhi - Indian politician

Widow of ex-PM Rajiv born in pre-Alps of Veneto


Sonia Gandhi overcame her reluctance to become a major figure in Indian politics
Sonia Gandhi overcame her reluctance to become
a major figure in Indian politics
Sonia Gandhi, an Italian who married into a famous political dynasty and became the most powerful woman in India, was born on this day in 1946 in a small town near Vicenza.

In 1965, in a restaurant in Cambridge, England, where she was attending a language school, she met an engineering student from the University of Cambridge. They began dating and three years later were married.

His name was Rajiv Gandhi, the eldest son of the future Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.  They were married in a Hindu ceremony, Sonia moved into her mother-in-law’s house and from then on lived as an Indian. Rajiv became an airline pilot while Sonia looked after their two children, Rahul and Priyanka.

Everything changed when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh nationalists in 1984, a year after Sonia had been granted Indian citizenship.  Rajiv had entered politics in 1982 following the death of his brother, Sanjay, in a plane crash and was elected to succeed his mother as prime minister.

Sonia wanted to remain in the background, having developed a passionate interest in preserving India’s artistic treasures. Inevitably she became more involved, campaigning on her husband’s behalf, and when Rajiv himself was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991, she was invited to take over as prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi at a meeting with the former US president Bill Clinton
Sonia Gandhi at a meeting with the former US
president Bill Clinton
She declined but then watched her husband’s Indian National Congress Party lose its way over the next few years and was urged to help revive its flagging fortunes. She joined the party in 1997. Within a year she was leader of the opposition in the Indian Parliament and in 2004 won the general election.

Amid controversy over whether a foreigner should be allowed to assume the highest office in the country, she opted not to become prime minister, nominating Manmohan Singh to hold the title instead, a move that was accepted by her political opponents.

Nonetheless, as chair of the 15-party governing coalition, named the United Progressive Alliance, that was charged with running the country, she was the most powerful woman in Indian politics and therefore one of the most powerful women in the world.

How different her life might have been had she not met the young Rajiv Gandhi on that evening in 1965.

The house in Lusiana where Sonia Gandhi was born in 1946
The house in Lusiana where Sonia
Gandhi was born in 1946
Born in Lusiana, a town in the Veneto about 20km (12 miles) north of Vicenza, her birth name was Edvige Antonia Albina Maino.  She spent her early years in the Contrada Maini – the Maini quarter – which historically was dominated by people from the Maino family, many of whom spoke a Germanic language called Cimbro.

It was her father, Stefano, who began to call her Sonia. A fervent supporter of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party, he had fought in Russia alongside the Axis forces during the Second World War and was taken prisoner, but was grateful for the kindness of three Russian women who helped him after he was released.  One was named Sonia, the others Anouchka and Nadia, and he used their names as nicknames for his own three daughters.

When Sonia was nine, the family moved to Orbassano, a town near Turin, where her father started a small business.  He built his family a two-storey villa, with tall iron gates, that remains the family home even today.

He was a strict catholic and sent Sonia and her sisters to a convent, where they were boarders. Sonia was remembered as a lively student who took part in theatre activities and sang.

Later, she attended a Berlitz language school in Turin, eager to learn good English, a command of which was regarded as essential for any Italian with ambition. It was becoming the norm for wealthier Italian parents to send their children to study in England, hence Sonia’s arrival in Cambridge in January, 1965.

She did not care much for English weather nor the food, and the only cuisine resembling Italian that she could find in Cambridge at the time was at the Varsity Restaurant, whose owner was Greek-Cypriot. It was where she met Rajiv.  Some accounts of her life say she took temporary work there as a waitress while studying, although it is not clear whether she was waiting on tables or simply there as a diner on the night she met Rajiv.

Rajiv Gandhi (left) with his mother Indira and brother Sanjay as a young man in India
Rajiv Gandhi (left) with his mother Indira and brother
Sanjay as a young man in India
Although she was a beautiful girl, never short of male attention, and comfortably off, too, thanks to her father’s generous allowance, it was only after meeting Rajiv that she felt her time in Cambridge became bearable. Rajiv was wealthy but Indians were not allowed to take much money out of the country and he therefore had to live a humble life. He took a part-time job in a supermarket while not studying. 

Sonia met Indira Gandhi in London and it was plain to her that her relationship with Rajiv met with his mother’s approval. But her own parents had reservations about the idea of her marrying a non-Italian, never mind one from a country so far removed from Italy as India, even though Stefano thought Rajiv was sincere and was impressed by his determination to support her by becoming a commercial pilot.

He forbade Sonia to travel to India until she was 18 and even then said he would give their relationship his blessing only after they had lived apart for a year, hoping it might cool.  It did not, and they were married in 1968.

Although her life from then was in India, Sonia returned to Italy from time to time but did so discreetly. When she won the 2004 election, the media descended on Orbassano.  Her father had passed away some years earlier but her mother and sisters still lived in the town. They declined all interviews, however, their reluctance explained by the mayor of Orbassano, who told reporters that they had been upset by the tragedies that had beset the Gandhi family and asked to be left in peace.

Lusiana nestles in the picturesque hills of the northern Veneto in the shadow of the Alps
Lusiana nestles in the picturesque hills of the northern
Veneto in the shadow of the Alps
Travel tip:

Lusiana is a town of slightly more than 2,500 inhabitants in the picturesque pre-Alps of northern Veneto, about 20km (12 miles) north of Vicenza and about the same distance west of Bassano del Grappa. It is located about 750m (2,450ft) above sea level on the Asiago or Sette Comuni plateau. It is a centre for tourism both in summer and winter. The church of Santa Caterina in the nearby village of the same name contains an altarpiece by the artist Jacopo Bassano.

Piazza Umberto I in Orbassano
Piazza Umberto I in Orbassano
Travel tip:

The town of Orbassano is in an area about 20km southwest of Turin that was deforested in Roman times. It grew from a village to a town in the 19th century when a railway line from Turin and a textile factory was opened, although it remained a relatively small municipality until the 1960s, when its development as an industrial centre saw the population double to around 16,000 in the space of a decade, largely due to Fiat opening a plant at nearby Rivalta. The town, with a pretty central square, Piazza Umberto I, has continued to grow and is earmarked  for a direct metro link to the centre of Turin. A road out of Orbassano is named Via Rajiv Gandhi.




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