Was Sonia Gandhi India”s “Accidental Dictator”?

Posted on May 2, 2014 in Politics

By Rita Banerji:

It is a question I feel obliged to ask for the simple reason that I voted for the Congress party in the last two elections, in 2004 and 2009.

In 2004 I believed my vote would put Sonia Gandhi on the Prime Minister’s chair. I know the fact that she is not a natural born Indian citizen upset many. And others took issue with the fact that for the first 16 years of her living in India, married to the Prime Minister’s son, she refused to take Indian citizenship. Having lived in the US, I know that a person with a similar background there would never be allowed to run for the highest office, and the same would be true for other western countries, including Sonia’s native Italy.


However, personally I didn’t have these issues, because I don’t subscribe to the ideology of nationalism. It does not fit my experience or vision of human existence. Rather, I see nations as administrative units and their elected heads as CEOs, charged with the job of the social, political and economic management of the nation.

Did I think Sonia Gandhi would do this job well when I voted for her? Honestly, I did not know! She barely spoke in public, and gave no interviews. Looking back, I have to admit I knew next to nothing about this person that I voted for, because she put nothing in the public domain on which I could ascertain her character and abilities.

Perhaps my vote was based on presumptions. Since she barely spoke, and never expressed any opinions, and seemed shy and reticent, I assumed her to be a gentle, selfless, agreeable soul. After the terrible wound of the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims, and the consumptive flames of communal hatred, perhaps Sonia Gandhi could provide the healing touch India needed? Or so I thought. After all, hadn’t she suffered terrible losses of her own, the brutal assassinations of her husband and mother-in-law?

Yet, even as I voted for her, there were two issues that I was concerned about. One had to do with Sonia Gandhi’s family background. Her father, an Italian mason, was a Mussolini loyalist and had also fought for the fascist army. I know these are largely non-issues in India. After all, the parent party of India’s right-wing, BJP, drew its inspiration for Hindu hegemony from Hitler’s Nazi empire. And the intellectual leftists in India bizarrely continue to argue that Subhash Bose’s attempts to partner with Hitler was a much needed strategic political alliance for India to defeat the British! I’ve always thought it is a pity that school text books in India barely deal with the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust in Europe, for perhaps then Indians would learn that the Romas (Gypsies) who are of Indian origin were one of the ethnic groups that were, alongside the Jews, considered as ‘inferior’ races and systematically exterminated by the Nazis. Furthermore, Hitler had noted in his Mein Kampf, that not only were the Indians an inferior race but they deserved to be colonized by the British.

As far as I was concerned I cannot hold a person responsible for choices their parents made, and I didn’t do that with Sonia Gandhi either. However, I felt it was important to know where she stood on what her father represented socially and politically. I actually had no real answer to that, but I deduced that her choice of marrying an Indian and choosing to settle down in India must in some way mean she’s not her father’s daughter!

The other thing that nagged at me was the 1984 Sikh pogrom under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party, and the fact that there had been no justice or closure for the victims. When in 2004, after winning the elections, Sonia Gandhi declined the Prime Minister’s chair, and nominated Manmohan Singh to it, and he as a senior Congress leader and head of the country, made the first public apology to the Sikhs, it seemed to me like at last the party was going to ensure justice for the victims. However, that never happened, and politicians, who ultimately had served as Sonia’s husband’s henchmen, mobilizing mobs to loot, rape, and kill, continued to enjoy her political shield.

For many of us who voted the Congress into its second term in 2009, it was the biggest mistake we made in failing to challenge Sonia Gandhi on this, when she rallied us to keep Modi and the BJP out of the government, by harking back to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, with her ‘zeher ki kheti’ analogy. Why was she so confident that she would evade accountability, for the same kind of communal atrocity by her party, and indeed her husband? Ask the Sikhs, and they’ll tell you Rajiv Gandhi was the Modi of the 1984 Sikh pogrom!

Indeed, the question that nags at me now, is why is it that while there have been trials, and arrests for 2002, the trials for 1984 been repeatedly blocked? There are police and politicians from the BJP in jail, but the main accused from 1984 continue to evade arrest and trial, and even continue in government! Why is it that while protectors of democracy from various fields, journalism, films, academics etc. have furiously and openly spoken out against Modi, and condemned 2002, there is almost complete silence on the same human rights violations in 1984? Why don’t they condemn the 1984 massacre and demand accountability from the party and the Gandhi family with the same uncontained outrage as they do for 2002? Is this hypocrisy, or fear?

I think there is hypocrisy, fear and a confounding of fundamental democratic values in India’s self-righteous, left-leaning liberals. It was shocking that even someone like Dr. Amartya Sen said the pogrom of 1984 is not the same as that of 2002, because the latter was due to communal hatred towards Muslims. Why would he refuse to recognize the targeting and massacre of Sikhs in 1984 as an illegal act of state sponsored mass violence towards a community? And why does denial of justice and protection of criminal politicians by the Congress party, indeed by Sonia Gandhi, not evoke in him and other Indian liberals the same outrage as the 2002 case does?

However, what was important to the 2009 Congress re-election as far as the public, indeed my own, vote went, was the public image of Manmohan Singh. He was regarded as a well educated and decent man, who would make for a level-headed and compassionate leader — something of a rarity in India’s cesspool of mucky politics. But the façade fell through very rapidly, and by 2011 the actual power structure in the Indian government, as later expounded on in Sanjaya Baru’s book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister,’ became shockingly evident to the educated public. As scam after scam hit the news, and resources and billions of dollars disappeared from the country, the Prime Minister’s person began to oddly, resemble a puppet on strings, wooden and mechanical even in his walk, talk and expressions. Watch any video from this period and it’s clear — she’s the boss. The prime minister is just a handbag she tags along. She gives orders, and decides when the meeting is over. The Prime Minister sits by her, mum, hands folded, eyes downcast, while she speaks and directs. He does not get up from his chair, till after she does. And he has nothing to say.

Perhaps there has been a certain sheepishness about how an entire nation could be so gullible to the building up of this one-woman-power-structure. The woman the nation thought is a saint, seems to have pulled what history will perhaps recognize as the most devious master-stroke in Indian politics. For surely, no person has managed as of yet, to patiently, strategically, and unnoticed, create a space for the consolidation of all power in a nation, without any scope of public or official accountability. Around this time, I was talking to some Swedish friends who were visiting India, and they remarked how this sounded incredibly like a “dictatorship!” I replied that as a resident of the country it felt worse. It’s like we are living in a state of complete anarchy, with no leadership and no direction. Something like the New York twin towers after the planes went through them, where the infrastructure had all crumbled and it was just a matter of time before the entire nation came plummeting down. It feels like India is a Titanic waiting to happen and no one knows where the emergency door is. Who do we turn to?

Yet, the strangest thing was this. While the press in western countries was quick to pick up on this ‘dictatorial’ power structure and challenge it, the media in India remained fearfully silent. A July 2012 article in the UK’s Independent asked, “Manmohan Singh — India’s saviour or Sonia’s poodle?” In September 2012, The Washington Post declared: “India’s silent Prime Minister Becomes a Tragic Figure” It went on to elaborate, “Sonia Gandhi had surprised many people by winning national elections… but she sprang an even bigger surprise by renouncing the top job and handing it to Singh. In him she saw not only the perfect figure¬head for her government but also a man of unquestioning loyalty, party insiders say, someone she could both trust and control. From the start, it was clear that Sonia Gandhi held the real reins of power. The Gandhi family has ruled India for most of its post- independence history and enjoys an almost cult like status within the Congress party. Sonia’s word was destined to remain law.” Later the Forbes magazine named her “the 9th most powerful person on the planet,” and the Huffington Post noted she was the one of the wealthiest women, richer than the queen of England!

The Indian media on the other hand seemed too fearful to challenge Sonia’s status quo directly. It never asked how a person who did not even hold a position in government came into this kind of power and wealth. Instead it made feeble, roundabout statements through silly little cartoons clips on television and insipid humour columns in newspapers.

Of course Manmohan Singh is primarily culpable for he is the linchpin in this devious plot, who, willingly, provided the ultimate shield for the perversion of a government and its democratic system.

However, it is those of us who have supported the Congress party and voted it into power that are most guilty. The Congress party is not Sonia Gandhi’s private property that she inherited from her husband for herself and her children. The Congress party is India’s political legacy; it represents our people’s struggle for freedom, democracy and human dignity. It’s our failure as voting citizens that we allowed it to be used as a vehicle for the establishment of a dictatorial power centre.

Indeed it is the anarchy, the uncertainty, and break-down of governance, we allowed unquestioningly under Congress rule, which has today pushed a large section of Indians towards the BJP.

If the BJP proves to have a fascist agenda against Muslims and other minorities, is there a strong or coherent enough opposition in the Congress party to counter it? The public has lost all faith in the Congress party today. Sonia Gandhi has made sure there are no challengers in the party to her position, or to her son, Rahul’s ascension to the ‘throne.’ Of course I don’t believe it is her intentions to have him become the Prime Minister, just as it never was her own intention. She has created an even better, safer power niche for him. But as far as the survival of the Congress remains, it seems she’s the captain who is determined to take the ship down with her. Even in the BJP there is open dissent, and a greater variance of views that are freely expressed.

It is interesting, how I finally got my answer to the question that had been nagging at me when I first voted for Sonia Gandhi. What is her take on her father who was a Mussolini fan and soldier in the fascist army? Two years ago, reading, Rani Singh’s biography of Sonia Gandhi, I found a little line that talked about a photo of Rahul as a little boy wearing his Italian grandfather’s military hat. Now this photo would have been taken sometime in the 1970s. It’s one thing if Sonia had a photo of Rahul and her father, which she could have since her father died in 1983. But having her son wear her father’s fascist army hat, indicates her need to have her children respect and take a pride in what their grandfather stood for! The year she finally took Indian citizenship, also is the year her father died, the father who so disapproved of her marriage to an Indian he didn’t attend the wedding. In fact, the more I think of it, the more it seems she’s her father’s daughter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author only