De Facto Boss

Sonia Gandhi Health Mystery Sets India Leadership Adrift

With India’s economy faltering, questions about Sonia Gandhi’s future need resolving, says Bruce Riedel.

Prakash Singh, AFP / Getty Images

The Indian economy is slowing down, and the impact will be global. One of the fastest-growing economies of the last decade has slipped from almost 9 percent growth to less than 6 percent. The reasons are many, but questions about the leadership at the top are a problem. The woman who ran the world’s largest democracy for much of the last decade, Sonia Gandhi, is apparently in poor health, and the Indian political establishment senses change is coming.

Gandhi is arguably the most powerful woman in the world today, perhaps even the most powerful woman in history. She is the political leader of the world’s largest democracy, soon to be the largest country in terms of population. But last 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 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 abroad. She traveled abroad again, in February, for a “checkup.” She resumed her duties as party leader and is the de facto boss of India today. She has made 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. Indeed, she cultivates an air of mystery about her and her policy views. What few biographies have been published about her are mostly stale and give little insight into what makes her so powerful. What is most astounding is that the Indian press, among the most vibrant in the world, has chosen collectively to give her space.

She is without question the power behind the throne. She has led the party as its president since 1998, engineering its surprise electoral victory in 2004 and its even more stunning victory in 2008. Now is the longest serving president of the party in its 125-year history, she is also chairman of the ruling coalition. India’s economy has grown on her watch, hundreds of millions have escaped grinding poverty, modest reforms have been introduced, and a 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. Gandhi probably deserves the bulk of the credit for holding India back from a military response to the Mumbai attack and giving diplomacy a chance.

She was born Eduige Antonia Albina Maino in the province of Veneto in Italy on Dec. 9 1946, and grew up in a modest village in the Piedmont near Turin. 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 husband-to-be in Cambridge, England, where she was studying English and he was enrolled at university. She was waiting on tables in a Greek restaurant to make ends meet, and then love struck. By all accounts it was a romance. Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi had a son and daughter. He became prime minister in 1984, after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil female terrorist.

The murders of her mother-in-law and husband affected Sonia Gandhi tremendously. She was very close to Indira Gandhi; some suggest she tries now to look like her role model. Security has been intense for her since Rajiv Gandhi’s death. I remember changing cars twice when visiting her bungalow in New Delhi in 1998. Both vehicles were part of her own 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 last August, but that is still unconfirmed. Her son Rahul is widely seen as the next Gandhi to take power but has yet to truly impress Indians that he is ready or ever will be to take over 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 prime minister 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.

So with unanswered questions about Sonia Gandhi’s future and Singh expected not to run again for the prime minister’s job, India looks to be a bit adrift. Hard decisions about economic reforms and investment rules have been postponed, and the economy has slowed. But the fundamentals of India’s rise to great power status have not changed. It is still certain to be one of the world’s largest economies in the 21st century, and its entrepreneurial talent is bound to make it a world leader. And it is far too early to count Gandhi out. She has been underestimated far too often in the past.