The Indian electorate has handed the centre-left Congress party an overwhelming mandate to govern—the alliance it leads won 262 out of the 543 seats in the national parliament. Here, Jonathan Power recalls his meeting back in 2005 with Sonia Gandhi, the party’s leader and head of one of India’s oldest political dynasties.
I walk up Sonia Gandhi’s driveway, past guards with Uzi machine guns, and can’t help thinking that when I came to interview Mrs Indira Gandhi (Sonia’s mother-in-law) on the eve of her great comeback and massive electoral win, I walked up to her front door and knocked. There were no guards and only one servant to let me in.
I am ushered into Sonia G’s office. She barely acknowledges my presence. “Buon giorno”, I say. There is no reply. I have been warned that she’s cold and she doesn’t offer me a hand. She walks over to me and asks me to sit down.
I look her in the eye and ask my first question to the Italian widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was cruelly blown to smithereens by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.
“Do you mind if I begin with a personal question?” “Yes”, she says. I ask her, as the victorious chairwoman of the Congress Party, whether it was difficult to decide to go into politics, given the toll it has taken on her family. “I am at peace about that”, she replies. “I have thought it through”. Then she suddenly interjects, “I hope this isn’t an interview. I just want us to get to know each other a bit.” I reply defensively that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (who fixed me the introduction) had said it could be an interview.
We continue, but without me writing in my notebook, and I lapse into a gentler, more conversational style. “Why did the pull of politics overcome your inhibitions?” “Congress was in disarray. It couldn’t win an election. And we need to keep India as a secular state, encompassing all religions.”
I ask her about her own religious beliefs and, like her mother-in-law, the murdered Indira Gandhi, she replies, “I’m not religious: my parents are not particularly religious although my mother sometimes goes to church. “So on…