September 21, 2005
Sonia Gandhi's Reluctant War on TerrorBy N. S. Rajaram
[The first of two articles]
India, along with Pakistan, is one of the key battlegrounds in the struggle against Islamist terror for the future of civilization. The largest democracy in the world, India has suffered its own severe Jihadist terror attacks, albeit little—reported in American mass media. However, the position and influence of one person, Italian—born and female, may adversely constrain India's ability to play its role to the fullest degree in combatting this worldwide threat.
Sonia Gandhi is one of India's most influential politicians, but her power and positions are little—known overseas. She is the leader of the Congress Party that leads the coalition government presently in power in India. Though not a formal member of the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she is probably India's most influential politician.
While Pakistan's General Musharraf is comparatively well—known to Americans, what little they may know about Sonia Gandhi is limited to the fairy tale romance of her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of India's most powerful political dynasty. Considering her position in Indian politics and India's key role in the war on terror, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation. This article and its second part are written to fill this void.
According to official records, Sonia Gandhi was born Antonia Maino in December 1946 to working class parents in Orbassano, Italy, an industrial suburb of Turin. Very little is known of her early life before she met Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge in 1965, and married him in 1968. They both moved to New Delhi and took up residence with Rajiv's mother Indira Gandhi who was then prime minister of India.
Rajiv, then working as a commercial pilot, seemed to have no political ambitions at the time. Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 at the hands of Sikh militants drastically changed the picture. It vaulted Rajiv to the position of India's prime minister as his mother's successor. Sonia suddenly found herself one of the most privileged women in the world.
Rajiv Gandhi's five—year term as prime minister was rocked by corruption scandals over kickbacks in what is known as the Bofors deal, involving the purchase of howitzers for the Indian Army. The scandal resulted in his defeat in the 1989 elections. His administration was also embroiled in a costly military adventure in Sri Lanka. It was Rajiv Gandhi's Bay of Pigs, but with a deadly outcome. In May 1991 he was blown up by Sri Lankan LTTE suicide bombers, non—Islamist terrorists who long have bedeviled South Asia.
The loss of two of her closest relatives, her husband Rajiv and her mother—in—law Indira Gandhi, to sectarian violence seems to have left a permanent scar on her and may account for her extreme reticence on the subject of Jihadi terrorism.
Her husband's untimely death left Sonia Gandhi extremely wealthy. The true extent of her wealth became known only when the Soviet archives were thrown open following the collapse of the Soviet Union. KGB archives revealed that as far back as 1982, when Indira Gandhi was still prime minister, Soviet trading agencies were channeling funds into a company controlled by her son and future Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
This was brought to light by the Harvard Russian scholar Yvgenia Albats in her book The State Within A State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia. The Swiss newsmagazine Schweizer Illustrierte (November 11, 1991) provided more details. Citing newly—opened KGB records, it reported that Sonia Gandhi, widow of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was controlling a secret account worth 2.5 billion Swiss francs (about 2 billion dollars at current exchange rates) in a Swiss bank in her minor son's name. This was reported also by the Indian columnist A.G. Noorani in 1998.
In addition to assets in foreign banks worth in the billions of dollars, Sonia Gandhi controls at least as much within India, in the form of trusts, funds and foundations in the names of Nehru and Gandhi. Soon after Rajiv's assassination, a sympathetic nation voted her a billion rupees (about 22 million dollars at today's exchange rate) to set up a foundation in her husband's memory. All this gives her the power to dispense political favors and patronage on a vast scale.
Sonia Gandhi today has two major assets: identification with the greatest political dynasty in India — the Nehru—Gandhis — and enormous wealth. She is not related to Mahatma Gandhi. Rajiv was Nehru's grandson. The Gandhi name comes from Nehru's daughter Indira's marriage to Feroz Gandhi, unrelated to the Mahatma. The impact of the Nehru—Gandhi name in India, especially to earlier generations, may be compared to that of a hypothetical Washington—Jefferson dynasty to Americans 200 years ago.
The source of Sonia Gandhi's power today is her great wealth rather than the name. The Congress Party she heads is not now the force it once was in India. Her own performance after she entered politics ten years ago has been lackluster. She twice tried to assume power as prime minister but failed on both occasions.
In 2004, after President Abdul Kalam declined to invite her to form the government, she claimed that she is not interested in power but only in serving the country. This is belied by facts. In 1999, when the government lost its majority, she approached the then President K.R. Narayanan with the false claim that she had enough support in the parliament to form a government. The President rejected her claim.
Following her second failure, she chose the distinguished economist and former chief of the Reserve Bank (India's Federal Reserve) Manmohan Singh to head the coalition government. But even without official position, as the leader of the largest coalition partner, she wields considerable power in the government headed by her hand—picked Prime Minister.
Sonia Gandhi's main responsibility is to keep the coalition together. This means keeping her alliance partners happy. As a result of this peculiar arrangement, she finds herself in the situation of power without responsibility and responsibility without power. Within the Congress Party, she has total power but no responsibility, as she is not a member of the government. As the coordinator of the ruling coalition, she has the responsibility for keeping it together, but with no power over the Communists and other non—Congress parties and leaders.
Thus, for all her enormous resources, she is unable to control other members of the coalition. They can at any time withdraw support and bring the government down. This means she cannot afford to take a stand against her principal allies who keep the coalition afloat. Her largest allies are the Communists and regional satraps from the two most populous states— Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These two states contain significant Muslim populations. They can exert pressure on Mrs. Gandhi through their power brokers whose support she cannot do without.
In a strange way, Mrs. Gandhi finds herself in a position quite similar to General Musharraf's. Just as Musharraf has to keep his Islamist allies happy, Sonia Gandhi too feels that she has to keep her Muslim power brokers happy in order for the government to survive. She and her family now enjoy security guards provided by the government. She will lose this protection once the coalition government falls. This has made her soft in the face of provocation by Islamic fundamentalist forces. This vulnerability and its potential impact on the global war on terror is something that Americans need to know and understand. Part 2 will examine this influence of private citizen Sonio Gandhi.
N. S. Rajaram divides his time between Bangalore, India and Oklahoma City.