Happy Birthday

Sonia Gandhi, Sonia Maino, Indian National Congress
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress

December 09, 2009
by Jennifer Ferris
Once a reluctant leader, Sonia Gandhi is now one of India’s strongest voices in her role as head of the Indian National Congress, the ruling party in that country.

Sonia Gandhi's Early Days

Born December 9, 1946, in Orbassano, Italy, Sonia Gandhi was christened Edvige Antonia Albina Maino by her parents. Her family was of modest means; her father supported his family of five as a building contractor.

Growing up in an orthodox Roman Catholic household, Gandhi attended Catholic school for both her primary and secondary education. Instead of college, Gandhi went to Cambridge, England, in 1964 to attend a certificate course in the English language. While there she met a young student studying engineering at the University of Cambridge. After a first date at a Greek restaurant, the pair embarked on a three-year courtship.

The young man was Rajiv Gandhi, son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, and heir to a political legacy that spanned generations. The two married in 1968 in a nondenominational ceremony and moved to India that same year.

Gandhi's Notable Accomplishments

In India, the couple lived in Indira Gandhi’s home. Sonia Gandhi initially caused a stir by her failure to adapt to Indian customs. She publicly expressed dislike for Indian food and was photographed wearing a miniskirt, considered a scandalous garment at the time.

Gandhi and her husband rejected political life, even while living under the roof of the Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi worked as an airline pilot and Sonia Gandhi stayed home raising her two children and learning Hindi. After his brother’s death in a plane crash in 1980, Rajiv Gandhi resigned from the airline and made his first tentative forays into the political realm.

In 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. Rajiv Gandhi was catapulted headlong into the tumult of the country’s politics and he brought with him a reluctant Sonia. He was appointed Prime Minister and Sonia was expected to serve as hostess and companion at state events. At this time, she finally renounced her ties to Italy and became a full-fledged Indian citizen.

After tragedy struck again in 1991—a suicide bomber killed her husband—Gandhi retreated into seclusion for six years, sharing her grief with her two children. But just days after her husband’s death, members of his party, the Indian National Congress, had begun to pressure her to take over leadership of the party.

The elections of 1996 left the Congress party in a weak position and members began to split into argumentative factions. Hoping to spur success and unity, Gandhi publicly joined the party in August 1997 and was promoted to president within two months. During the 1999 elections, which were generally bad for the party, Gandhi was one of the few elected to a Parliamentary seat. Once in Parliament, she was elected head of the Opposition Party in the lower house, a position similar to minority leader in the American legislature.

The surprising defeat of the ruling party, the National Democratic Alliance, by Congress in 2004 brought Gandhi more attention. Several days after her election and her party’s move to the ruling party of the country, Gandhi rejected the post of Prime Minister, a move that shocked the country. 

Gandhi recommended a Prime Minister, who was appointed, and she continued to be active in the party. After her reelection in 2006, she made history when she recommended a woman, Pratibha Patil, as president. Patil became India’s first female president.

The Rest of the Story

From her first entrance into the political arena, Gandhi has been a source of controversy, drawing the ire of her opponents for various reasons. Chief among their complaints is Gandhi’s status as an outsider; her birth in Italy and her Roman Catholic religion have led some critics to question her loyalty. Gandhi has always responded by simply stating that she is Indian in her heart.

Others claim that Gandhi has achieved political popularity only on because of her name. With only a high school education and a basic understanding of the Hindi language, Gandhi’s qualifications might look questionable. Her supporters counter that the legacy of the Gandhi name is strong, but without her sense of fair play and reason, Gandhi would not be the leader that so many choose to support.

In 2006, Gandhi chose to resign from her Parliament seat in response to her detractors’ claim that she violated a rule about holding two posts at once. She was reelected in the next election and still serves today. Her son also holds a parliament post and he or her daughter are expected to become prime minister in the future.

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