I was beyond excited to get my hands on a preview copy of the biography of the leading political figure in India. Living in Delhi, as I do, we hear and read about Sonia-ji (and Rahul-ji) day after day. Their every move is reported upon, usually in breathless, uncritical prose. Yet very little is actually known about them, beyond the bare, essential facts.
So I had high hopes from this biography. I wanted to better know the woman who is de facto in charge of the country where I live.
Alas, these hopes were dashed.
This is not a book that is going to tell you much you didn’t already know about Madam (as the Indian press often describes her) and that is precious little in itself. This book will better serve the reader who is not fully immersed in India, as your reviewer is. For such a reader, this slightly rose-tinted walk through Sonia’s life and times in India will, no doubt, be interesting.
Rani Singh has meticulously researched Indian contemporary political history, which is an integral and indispensible part of the Gandhi story. Daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, who was herself the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minster of India. Married to Rajiv Gandhi, who would “succeed” his mother as PM, when she was assassinated, Rajiv himself was killed in 1991. Politics was the life-blood of the family into which she married, a young Italian girl, whose French was better than her English in the early days of her marriage.
It is true, no question about it, that to go from a traditional, small-town, middle-class Italian background to being the leading political figure in the world’s largest democracy is no mean feat. It is no mean feat at all.
It is true, no question about it, that Sonia Gandhi has had more than her fair share of tragedy, which she has borne with dignity.
But after reading the biography, which was not an authorised one, and so the biographer did not actually meet Mrs Gandhi, I am no closer to understanding Sonia-ji, a woman who says very little, but whose actions have far-reaching implications for all of us living here.
The earlier chapters of the book, covering the years when Sonia and Rajiv met in England, their marriage and their first years in India have more than a hint of romantic prose about them.
“In an instant, Sonia’s and Rajiv’s destinies has changed, and a new dawn was breaking in their lives” – that kind of thing.
But then, to be fair, there are tantalising little glimpses into her life.
We learn that a politician gave her a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
We learn that on a holiday in the Lakshwadeep Islands, Rajiv and Rahul “often dressed in blue-and-white nautical-style beach wear.”
We even find out what flavour of juice they both drank at a reception in the late 1980s (coconut water for her, lime juice for him, by the way)
But what we never get is anything that defines Sonia other than a reflection of her husband, a keeper-alive of his legacy, and as a devoted mother to two children (adults now) who are always described in glowing terms. The people to whom the biographer spoke have nothing but praise for Sonia.
The very fact of dynastic politics goes largely unquestioned :
“Though many circles are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.”
This is from the epilogue, when Ms Singh looks at Rahul, who may well take over from his mother. And thus another generation of the same family may well be in charge of the country’s political future.
Read the book to get up to speed on Indian politics. It’s an easy read, pleasantly written.
But what you will not really learn, sadly, is anything really new about Sonia Gandhi.
I know that I wanted to find out what really makes this enigmatic woman tick, but she remains as much as an enigma.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the hardback costs $26
If you wish to buy this book, it’s very easy – simply click on the link below to order it :