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'Foreigner' trumps detractors, again

May 16, 2009 15:30 IST

She was initially seen as a misfit in the heat and dust of India's politics. But now, Sonia Gandhi is the toast of the Congress, which is all set to return to power leading the United Progressive Alliance.

Sonia, 62, has travelled far since her tentative first steps into India's political maelstrom in the 1990s after the assassination of her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

And it has been an astonishing journey, even her critics will have to admit.

She led the Congress to a stunning general election victory in May 2004. After a scathing attack was launched against her foreign origins, she passed on the prime minister's post -- choosing the scholarly Manmohan Singh instead for India's top job.

Though critics used the move to call into question her power, she is still widely revered, especially among the country's poor millions.

The campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha elections saw the naturally shy and reticent Sonia step up decisively, giving Prime Minister Singh unwavering support. She took on leaders of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party with aplomb, blunting their often-venomous attacks on the party and Singh.

But after her husband's assassination, Sonia had become reclusive, a far cry for the political force she is today who routinely works the crowds at meetings and displays an increasingly combative approach.

Born December 9, 1946 to a middle class, Roman Catholic family near Turin, Italy, she went in 1964 to study English at the Bell Educational Trust's language school in the city of Cambridge.

During a certificate course, she met Rajiv Gandhi, older son of then prime minister Indira Gandhi. They fell in love, got married. In 1983, she acquired Indian citizenship.

She would avoid the political happenings, content being the housewife.

Her involvement with Indian public life began after the assassination of her mother-in-law and her husband's election as prime minister. As the prime minister's wife, she acted as his official hostess and also accompanied him on a number of state visits. At times, she was also involved in looking after her husband's constituency of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh.

In 1984, she actively campaigned against her sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi.

After her husband's death, she resisted Congress attempts to persuade her to step into Rajiv's shoes and eschewed politics for years. The Congress' dwindling fortunes, along with the revolts of many top party leaders forced her to reconsider her decision.

In the Calcutta Plenary Session of the Congress in 1997, she finally joined the party as a primary member. She officially took charge of the party as president in 1998, becoming the fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family -- and the eighth foreign-born person -- to become the Congress president.

In 1998, she agreed to become more involved but her initial efforts were overshadowed by her party's humiliating defeat at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1999 election.

During her tenure as Leader of the Opposition, despite 'foreigner' allegations, she was firm in her responsibility. Many pooh poohed her and were ready to write her poltical obituary.

She proved them all wrong, crisscrossed the country campaigning for the Congress and led the party to a thumping victory in the succeeding Lok Sabha Election.

In the newly created UPA headed by the Congress, she became the chairperson.

She was embroiled in the Office of profit controversy and resigned from the Lok Sabha and also as advisor, National Advisory Council. But she bounced back, re-elected from her constituency at Rae Bareli in May 2006 by a margin of over 400,000 votes.

In 2004, she was named by Forbes magazine as the third most powerful woman in the world. For the year 2007, she was named among Time magazine's annual list of the world's 100 most influential people.

She is little known in Italy, and has often dismissed her foreign birth as unimportant. She said her foreign birth might work against her with some but that in rural areas -- especially among the women and the poor -- she was no outsider.

"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she had said. "Because I am not, I am an Indian."

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