Book excerpt: The Red Sari

07 Mar 2015


''Soniaji,'' says the spokesman of the committee, ''I want you to know that the Congress Working Committee (CWC), meeting under the presidency of Narasimha Rao has elected you president of the party.

The election was unanimous. Congratulations.'' Sonia stares at them impassively, more than a dozen senior leaders who have come to convince her. Is grief not pure and sacred? They have not even allowed her to dry her tears for the death of her husband. Incapable of smiling, she does not have the desire or strength to pretend she is honoured by the party's decision.

''I cannot accept. My world is not politics, as you already know. I do not wish to accept.''

''Soniaji, I don't know if you realize what the committee is offering you. It is offering you absolute power over one of the largest democratic organizations in the world. It's offering you the chance to lead this great country. Above all it's offering you the chance to take on the inheritance of your husband so that his death is not in vain.''

''I don't think this is the right time to talk about this.''  

''The CWC has deliberated for many hours before making this proposal to you. I can assure you that we have thought deeply about it. You will have a free hand and will be able to count on our full support. We ask you to continue the family tradition. It is your duty as a good daughter of India.''

''You are the only one who can fill the void Rajiv has left,'' adds another.

''India is a very big country,'' Sonia replies. ''I can't be the only one out of a billion.''

''But you are the only Gandhi.'' Sonia looks up, as though she was expecting that argument. ''Not counting your children, of course.''

''My children are still very young, and neither are they interested in politics.''

''It is not a small thing to be named Gandhi in India,'' adds another.

''I know what you mean,'' Sonia interrupts him. ''It's a name that carries an obligation, but also damns the bearer. Just look at what has happened.''

''Look… You are the heir of this photo.'' One of them points to a photo on a side table next to the sofa. It is in a silver frame, and shows Indira, as a child, sitting by the Mahatma.

''Thank you very much, really, for thinking of me for that position. It is a great honour, but I do not deserve it. You know that I hate fame. Besides, I do not belong to the direct family, I'm just the daughter-in-law.''

''You married an Indian, and you know that here a daughter-in-law becomes part of her husband's family when she gets married… You have observed all our customs. You are as Indian as anyone. Look at this photo… isn't the sari that you wore on your wedding day, the one Nehru spun while he was in jail?''

''Yes, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I'm a foreigner.''

''The people don't care where you were born. You wouldn't be the first woman of foreign birth to be president of the Congress party,'' interrupts the third man. ''Remember that Annie Besant, one of the first leaders of the party and the first to lead it at a national level, was Irish. The idea isn't so crazy.''

''Those were different times. I'm too vulnerable to take on that post. Can you imagine the attacks from the Opposition? They would use the people against me, and it would be a disaster for everyone.''

''Soniaji, we are making you an unconditional offer,'' says the eldest man, an astute politician known for his skill in manipulation, and who seems like he is about to pull something out of his sleeve.

''Perhaps the most important thing for you is that you will once again enjoy the highest level of protection, just as when Rajiv was prime minister.''

''I'm sorry, but you have knocked on the wrong door. I have no ambition for power, I've never liked that world, I feel uncomfortable in it and I hate being the centre of attention. Rajiv didn't like it, either. If he went into politics it was because his mother asked him to. Otherwise he would still be an Indian Airlines pilot. He would probably still be alive today and we would be very happy… I'm very sorry, but don't count on me.''

''You are the only one who can prevent the collapse of the party. And if the party breaks up, it is very likely that the whole country will fall to pieces. What has kept India united since independence? Our party. Who guarantees the values that enable all the different communities to live together in peace? The Congress party. Since we have been out of power, look how the old demons have gained ground: communal and religious hatred, the separatist aspirations of so many states… The whole country is falling apart, and only you can help us to save it. You have prestige and the people love you. That is why we have come in person… to appeal to your sense of responsibility.''

''Responsibility? Why does it have to be this family that pays a constant tribute to the country with the blood of its members? Hasn't it been enough with Indiraji and Rajiv? Do you want more?''

''Think about it, Madam. Think about Nehruji, about Indiraji, about Rajivji… Your family is as closely linked to India as a vine round the trunk of a tree. Without your family, we are nothing. Without you, there is no future for this great party. This is the message we have come to bring you. We know that these are difficult times, and we beg your forgiveness for interrupting your grief, but do not abandon us. Do not throw so much sacrifice and struggle overboard. You have the torch of the Nehru-Gandhi family in your hand. Do not let it get extinguished.''

Words, words, words… Politicians always found arguments and excuses to talk about the only thing that interests them: power. Because she has lived so many years in the shadow of two prime ministers, Sonia knows the score. She can imagine the desolation of all the candidates who were going to stand in the elections and who, today, were left without a leader.

The murder of her husband had shattered the dreams of many people, not only his family. She can imagine the conjecturing, the manoeuvres, the backstabbing, the trickery of all those who are fighting to succeed Rajiv in the party. A lot was at stake and that is why, without wasting a second, the big fish have come to pay their respects to her.

They are not thinking about her as a human being, even in these dark hours, but as an instrument for holding on to the reins of power. Power cannot bear a vacuum – it was time to jockey for positions within the party.

Sonia had learned from Rajiv and Indira to keep the politicians at bay, to not allow them to use her. But they were cunning and thought that Sonia would end up giving way, if not for herself, then for her children, to keep the family name alive, because power was a magnet from which it is impossible to escape. Do the Vedas not say that even the gods cannot resist flattery?

The next day, Sonia sends a letter to the party: ''I am deeply moved by the trust placed in me by the Working Committee. But the tragedy that has struck my children and myself does not allow me to accept the presidency of this great organization.''

This is a shock to the faithful, who cannot accept her rejection and decide to continue pressurizing her with all the means at their command. Every morning, party sympathizers demonstrate in front of her home, a colonial building located at number 10, Janpath, in Lutyen's Delhi. They carry posters and shout slogans, ''Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe; Soniaji for president.''

Sonia, annoyed, asks her husband's secretary, Vincent George, to get rid of the demonstrators, to put an end to this spectacle. Let them look for another successor, she thought. My family has done enough already.    

See: The Red Sari tells us just who Sonia Gandhi is


Interview with Javier Moro, author of The Red Sari

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