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Reluctant neta to most powerful woman in India

Last updated on: September 7, 2010 14:29 IST

Reluctant neta to most powerful woman in India

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Sonia Gandhi, who was re-elected as the Congress chief for a record fourth term after holding the top post for 12 years, was once a reluctant politician whose crowning glory came when the Congress leading the United Progressive Alliance retained power last year.

Sonia, 63, the shy and reticent politician who entered the Indian political scene as the demure Italian bride of Rajiv Gandhi in 1968, has so far been unanimously elected as Congress president barring once when Jitendra Prasada, a senior leader from Uttar Pradesh, had thrown his hat in the ring but failed miserably in 2000.


Image: Congress president Sonia Gandhi
Photographs: Sondeep Shankar/ Saab Pictures
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She received a lot of flak when the Congress fared badly

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A three-time Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Rae Bareli, she officially took charge of the 125-year-old Congress party as its president in 1998, becoming the fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the eighth foreign-born person to become the party chief.

She received a lot of flak when the Congress fared badly in the 1999 general elections. Often attacked for her foreign origin, Sonia has traveled far since she tentatively entered the country's political maelstrom in the 1990s, after the assassination of her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.


Photographs: Ranjan Basu/ Saab Pictures
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Gandhi turned herself into a paragon of sacrifice

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The daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, she won a general election victory for the party in May 2004, but then passed on the prime minister's job, handing it over to Manmohan Singh. With one deft stroke in 2004, Gandhi turned herself from an outsider to future prime minister to the paragon of sacrifice.

By refusing the prime ministership, she took the wind out of the sails of the Bharatiya Janata Party's single-point agenda; should a foreigner become the country's prime minister? Though critics used the move to call into question her power, Sonia is still widely revered, especially among the country's millions of poor.


Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Sonia Gandhi
Photographs: Sondeep Shankar/ Saab Pictures
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Sonia has shed her formerly taciturn manner

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She solidly stood behind the prime minister with her unwavering support and worked in tandem.

The campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha elections last year saw the naturally shy Sonia take on leaders of rival Bharatiya Janata Party with aplomb, blunting their venomous attacks on the party and Manmohan Singh. Sonia seems to have shed her formerly taciturn manner, routinely working the crowds at political meetings and displaying a more combative approach.

After Rajiv's death, Sonia became reclusive, but she later returned to public life ready to serve.


Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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She is little known in Italy

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Sonia Maino, the daughter of a small building contractor who was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family near Turin, was eventually persuaded to pick up the torch and became the leader of the Congress party in 1998, giving it a Gandhi figurehead once again. Sonia has often dismissed her foreign birth as unimportant.

She is little known in Italy and became an Indian citizen in 1983. She said that her foreign birth might work against her with some, but that in rural areas -- especially among the woman and the poor -- she was no outsider.


Image: A file photo of Sonia with Rajiv Gandhi

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'I am an Indian'

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"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she had once said. "Because I am not, I am an Indian."

She first came to prominence as the prime minister's wife, and then as his widow, nearly two decades ago.

As Sonia paved her steps slowly into the highly influenced corridors of Indian politics, she emerged as the chairperson of the ruling UPA in the Lok Sabha and the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party.

In 2004, she was named the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine. In 2007, she was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people.


Image: A file photo of Sonia with Rajiv Gandhi
Photographs: Vijender Tyagi
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She was the perfect housewife

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Born on December 9, 1946 in a middle-class family in Italy, she went to the UK in 1964 to study English at the Bell Educational Trust's language school in the city of Cambridge. It was here, while pursuing a certificate course, that she met Rajiv, the elder son of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Sonia earlier used to avoid political happenings and served as the perfect housewife. Her involvement with Indian public life began after the assassination of her mother-in-law and her husband's election as the prime minister. At times, she was also involved in looking after her husband's constituency of Amethi.


Image: Sonia Gandhi with son Rahul, daughter Priyanka and grandchildren
Photographs: Ranjan Basu/Saab Pictures
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She campaigned against sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi

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In 1984, she actively campaigned against her sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi who was at that time contesting against Rajiv in the constituency of Amethi. Initially reluctant to enter politics, the dwindling position that the Congress was facing along with the revolts of many top-ranking Congress leaders forced Sonia to reconsider her decision.

She had resisted Congress attempts to persuade her to step into Rajiv's shoes and eschewed politics for several years. In the Calcutta Plenary Session of the Congress in 1997, she finally joined the Congress party as a primary member.


Photographs: Sondeep Shankar/ Saab Pictures
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She led the party to a thumping victory

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Eventually, in 1998, Sonia agreed to become more involved in the party, but her initial efforts were overshadowed by Congress' humiliating defeat at the hands of the BJP in the 1999 election.

During her tenure as the Leader of the Opposition, she was firm in her responsibility and led the party to a thumping victory in the 2004 parliamentary elections. In the newly created UPA headed by the Congress, she became the chairperson.


Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters
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She has never looked back

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In a minor setback, Sonia was embroiled in the Office of Profit controversy and resigned from the Lok Sabha and also as Adviser of the National Advisory Council.

According to electoral laws, an elected person cannot hold an office of profit (meaning paid posts). She was, however, re-elected from her constituency in Rae Bareli in May 2006 by a margin of over four lakh votes and has never looked back.


Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
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