NEW DELHI -- The decision of Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's Italian widow, to enter politics by becoming a member of the Congress Party heralds the return of the Gandhi dynasty to Indian politics.
After the assassinations of her husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi gave the impression that she was not interested in public life. Two factors influenced her change of mind. The first was the conclusion of a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into what is known as the Bofors arms deal, which according to leaked reports had implicated Rajiv Gandhi. Second, with the Gandhi name clouded by corruption, and with no Gandhi prominently active, the dynasty would fade into oblivion.
Bofors is a Swedish arms manufacturer that won a $20 million contract to supply heavy artillery guns to the Indian army. Bofors beat out favored French and Austrian suppliers, according to reports, because Rajiv Gandhi, then the prime minister had close friends, including an Italian businessman based in Delhi, with a stake in the deal.
Sonia Gandhi's plunge into politics should help the Congress Party, which led India's independence from Britain in 1947. but has been in decline. The Gandhis see the Congress Party as a family fiefdom, and the party returns the sentiment. ''Anything she wants in the party is hers,'' said a leading party figure after Mrs. Gandhi joined. What she may want is to be prime minister on August 15 when India celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence. Her grandfather-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru, unfurled the flag of independent India. His daughter Indira Gandhi became prime minister, as did her son, Rajiv. Sonia Gandhi is now senior figure in the family.
The Nehru-Gandhi dominance of Indian politics is a curious blend of republicanism and royalty, a blend of Windsor and Kennedy, with a dash of ''Dallas.'' The Gandhi hold over the masses comes partly from a populist politics and partly from style. The family's way of life eschews ostentation, limousines, flashy clothing or other extravagance. A regal reticence blended with republican politics has kept the family at the center of public attention for close to a century -- no mean achievement in a country that once boasted more than 500 recognized princes.
The perfect Gandhi
Though Italian, Sonia has been the perfect Gandhi in the way she behaves, talks and interacts with Congress Party politicians. She learned her style from mother-in-law; we shall see whether she also learned that lady's acumen in daily politics. As for the masses, what matters is not that Sonia is a foreigner, but that she is a Gandhi.
The founder of the dynasty was Motilal Nehru, a lawyer with a tremendous sense of personal destiny. He made a fortune and his lifestyle rivaled those of the maharajas and British governors. He sent his son Jawaharlal to school at Harrow, where he mixed with the children of British nobility and learned the confidence to deal with the English as equals.
Motilal Nehru was later to persuade Mohandas K. Gandhi (no relation) to make young Jawaharlal the president of the Congress Party. In less than 50 years the family has provided three prime ministers and six leading politicians. Sonia Gandhi and her two children are the only surviving direct-line Gandhis. There is speculation that her daughter Priyanka, might have a political future, but for now the fortunes of this most Indian family rest with Sonia, the lady from Milan.
Ranjan Gupta is an Indian journalist and commentator.
Pub Date: 6/05/97