Sonia Gandhi and India's Democratic Dynasty

One of the most powerful women in the world protects a monumental secret.

She is arguably the most powerful woman in the world today, perhaps one of the most powerful women in history. She is the political leader of the world’s largest democracy, soon to be the largest country in terms of population. Yet she has been recently hospitalized for a serious illness abroad, and we don’t know what the illness is or how sick she may be. Sonia Gandhi is India’s most Catholic sovereign.

In early August, the Congress Party of India, which has ruled the country for almost its entire history since the end of the British Raj, announced that Mrs. Gandhi, the party leader, was abroad for health reasons. The illness was not revealed. She returned a month later, and no more details were provided on her status or why she had sought treatment overseas. She resumed her duties as party leader and the de facto boss of India today. She has made very few public appearances, but when she has been photographed she has looked agile and fit.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, we are told, does know what ails his boss, but very few other Indian officials are in the know. Gandhi guards her privacy carefully. What is most astounding is that the Indian press, among the most vibrant in the world, has chosen collectively to give her space.

Gandhi is without question the power behind the throne. She has led the party as its president since 1998 and engineered its surprise electoral victory in 2004 and its even more stunning victory in 2008. She is also chairman of the ruling coalition. India’s economy has grown on her watch, modest reforms have been introduced and the civilian nuclear-power agreement concluded and signed with America. Relations with rival Pakistan have modestly improved despite the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, the worst terrorist incident in the world since 9/11. Sonia probably deserves the bulk of the credit for holding back from a military response to the attack and giving diplomacy a chance.

She was born Eduige Antonia Albina Maino in the province of Veneto in Italy on December 9. 1946, and she grew up in a modest village in the Piedmont near Torino. Her father was a Mussolini supporter who had fought with the Italian army on the eastern front with the Nazis in World War II. She remains a Catholic but celebrates Hindu festivals and traditions. In 1965, she met her future husband in Cambridge, England, where she was studying English and he was enrolled at university. She was waiting on tables in a Greek restaurant when love struck. By all accounts it was a romance. Rajiv and Sonia had a son and a daughter. He became prime minister in 1984 after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. He was assassinated in 1989 by a female Tamil terrorist.

The murders of her mother in law and husband affected Gandhi tremendously. She was very close to Indira, and some suggest she tries now to take on the appearance of her role model. Security has been intense for her since Rajiv’s death. I remember changing cars twice when visiting her bungalow in New Delhi in 1998. Both vehicles were part of her security detachment, but apparently even they were not judged safe enough. At first she was reluctant to take power, but she finally agreed. Now power seems natural to this remarkable woman.

Media speculation has suggested she was treated for cancer in New York in August, but that is not confirmed. She has yet to give an in-depth press interview since returning from her trip, and instead she is focused on her job and her children. Her son Rahul is widely seen as the next Gandhi to take power. It is the most powerful democratically elected dynasty in history. The founder, Nehru, was India’s first prime minister and ruled from 1947 until his death in 1964. His daughter Indira served as PM from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her murder in 1984. Her son, Rajiv, was in office for five years. Collectively, the three ruled India for 39 of its first 42 years as an independent state. The Roosevelts and Bushs seem short timers in contrast.

It is all but inconceivable that the American press would give our most powerful politician the privacy that India has afforded Gandhi. Despite the cutthroat nature of the Indian media and its penchant for the sensational, the press has behaved as if it were in an older era. It is refreshing.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and the forthcoming Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

Image: Agência Brasil