Sonia Gandhi - she is straight as a die.
I walk up Mrs Sonia Gandhi's drive way, past guards with Uzi machine guns, and can't help thinking that when I came to interview Mrs Indira Gandhi on the eve of her great comeback and massive electoral win, I walked up to her front door and knocked.
There were no guards; and one servant to let me in.
I am ushered into Mrs Gandhi's office. She barely acknowledges my presence. "Buon giorno,” I say. There is no reply. I have been warned that she's cold and she doesn't offer me a hand. She walks over to me and asks me to sit down. I look her in the eye and ask my first question to the widow of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was cruelly blown to smithereens by a female LTTE terrorist.
"Do you mind if I begin with a personal question?" "Yes," she says.
I then ask her, the once again victorious chairwoman of the Congress Party: "Wasn't it difficult to decide to go into politics, knowing the dangers and the terrible toll it has taken on your family?" "I am at peace about that," she replies. "I have thought it through". Then she suddenly interjects - "I hope this isn't an interview. I just want us to get to know each other a bit." I reply defensively that Dr Manmohan Singh who fixed me the introduction had said it could be an interview. Albeit we continue, but without writing in my notebook, and I lapse into a gentler, more conversational style.
"Why did the pull of politics overcome your inhibitions?"
"Congress was in disarray. It couldn't win an election. And we need to keep India as a secular state, encompassing all religions," Mrs Gandhi says. (Which in this present election Congress has admirably done, bringing in Muslims and Sikhs in very large numbers, as well as Hindu
I ask her about her own religious beliefs and, like her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, she replies: "I'm not religious." She adds: "My parents are not particularly religious although my mother sometimes goes to church." "So on what basis do you make moral decisions in family life or in politics?" "I suppose Catholic values are at the back of my head," she says. I push on. "What about nuclear weapons? You are one of those with your finger on the button..." She grimaces. A God-spare-me kind of look. Clearly, with her and Dr Singh in charge, the Pakistanis must know that the Indian government will never threaten to use its nuclear weapons.
Why doesn't that lead to South Asian disarmament, a question that nobody anywhere would give me a straight answer to. I mention Robert McNamara's book, which firmly advocates total nuclear disarmament for the superpowers, unilaterally for the USA if necessary. (McNamara was Presidents John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's then hardline Secretary of Defence.) "It is a marvellous book," I say. "You'd be inspired reading it." "Yes, I like the man," she comments. "He's been here a couple of times for seminars we organised at The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation." I tell her a little about the book and offer to send it to her. She says she'd enjoy the chance to read it. Then, being friendly for the first time, she asks me how my lecture - chaired by Dr Singh - went at the Foundation.
I notice that now her lips are less pressed. She looks me in the eye. I notice the grey strands in her hair. She is no beauty, but she has charm and a quiet dignity. She doesn't play the Queen Bee although in fact today she is India's, flying as high as it's possible to be in politics. When I interviewed Indira Gandhi a couple of times she could sometimes be a little coquettish. But not Sonia Gandhi - she is straight as a die.
Nevertheless, I couldn't resist telling her about one of my interviews with her mother-in-law. She entertained me with her delightful Henry Kissinger and Peter Sellers stories. She told me about the Peter Sellers' film, when he made himself up as an Indian and ended up with a beautiful lady in the swimming pool (The Party). It was brought to her by the censor board, so sensitive was the subject matter for what was at the time a prudish Indian audience. "Wasn't the film a little blue?" I had asked. "So what?" she'd replied. "I couldn't stop laughing. People can make up their own minds." Sonia Gandhi asks me to send her the interview.
I know Dr Singh is waiting to see her. She moves her hands ever so slightly, and I know my time is up.
This article was first published in the The Statesman, India. Courtesy: Asian News Network.
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