The Sonia Shock
The congress party and its controversial leader score a stunning victory
India's Economy
Shining Less Brightly
A Political Dynasty
"Sonia Gandhi is the fourth member of India's first family to lead the country

Reversal of Fortune
Congress and its allies now rule India's lower house of Parliament

Mukesh and Anil Ambani
The Families that Own Asia
Looking Down the Barrel
India and Pakistan rev up their militaries
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The Sonia Shock
In the world's largest democratic vote, the congress party and its controversial leader score a stunning victory

Gandhi takes power in India
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Posted Monday, May 17, 2004; 21:00 HKT
Even Bollywood might hesitate at the story of a beautiful Italian girl who follows her prince to a faraway land to find love, tragedy and heartbreak before finally triumphing as the leader of her new people. And last week India seemed scarcely able to believe it either. Shocked-looking television anchors and pundits who for months had unanimously predicted Sonia Gandhi's imminent, disastrous defeat instead delivered news of a sensational election victory. Across the country, workers from her Congress Party experienced a moment of incredulous, speechless joy before erupting boisterously in thousands of spontaneous festivals. Outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had been so confident of a second term that he called for the election six months early, announced his resignation to the nation and grumpily praised the "strong and diverse" democracy that rudely dumped him from power. Most dazed of all, inside her colonial bungalow in New Delhi, was India's new leader. Friends said that on the day of the results, the 57-year-old Sonia was too nervous to turn on her TV. But after they called to congratulate her, she spent all day sitting quietly in her living room, watching reports of her win over and over, and gazing with a bemused smile at a portrait on the wall of her husband Rajiv and another of her mother-in-law Indira. Stepping out for the briefest of evening press conferences, Sonia agreed with a reporter—almost as if the possibilities of power were dawning on her for the first time—that it was indeed "normally the case" that the leader of the largest party in India's Parliament became Prime Minister. Two days later senior Congress officials nominated Sonia for the post, and she awaited only the seeming formality of an invitation by India's ceremonial President to form a new government.

Sonia's victory is the crowning triumph of a remarkable political career. Born in the village of Orbassano, outside Turin, Sonia Maino was an 18-year-old language student when, in 1965, she met Rajiv Gandhi in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, England, where he was an undergraduate. "His eyes were so beautiful," she said in an interview with the Indian press earlier this year. "It was a feeling inside that this perhaps is the person you have been looking for, love at first sight. And it was mutual." The couple married in New Delhi three years later and at first steered clear of politics. But in the 1980s and '90s, a succession of tragedies drew her inexorably into what has been, since before Jawaharlal Nehru helped India win its independence, the first family's business. The death of Indira's son Sanjay in a plane crash in 1980 prompted Rajiv to take his place as his mother's political heir. He succeeded her as Prime Minister in 1984, when Indira's Sikh bodyguards shot her dead in her garden in revenge for a bloody crackdown on Sikh militancy.

On the day Indira died, Sonia predicted politics would also claim her husband. "We were at the Medical Institute," she later recalled. "I had taken my mother-in-law there. Her body was lying by our side. I opposed him. I literally begged him. I said he too would be killed. I was right." When a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv in May 1991, the grief-stricken Sonia refused entreaties to replace him as the head of the dynasty. But by 1997, with Congress floundering, the same two expectant faces that last week watched over her win had somehow persuaded her to follow them into political life. "You see those two photographs?" she once said to a reporter. "I just couldn't walk past them without feeling like a coward." By claiming power after 15 long years in the wilderness, her 33-year-old son Rahul declared last week, the Gandhi dynasty was finally laying its ghosts to rest: "I've seen her fight the day my grandmother died. I've seen her fight the day my father died. And she has won. My mother is my hero."

Sonia's victory is not just a fairy tale come true. It's a personal vindication after endless jibes about her foreign birth and her years as a housewife. For supporters of Congress, it also represents a resurrection of secular India after years of rule by Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during which Hindu intolerance of Muslims seemed in danger of being officially condoned. (No one has ever been convicted, for example, for the 2002 riots in Gujarat in which some 2,000 Muslims perished.) But the hard reality of office might make Sonia wish it were all a dream. Last week's vote was more a rejection of the BJP than any great endorsement of Congress. And the issues that ended the reign of the grand old man of Indian politics are set to become more urgent; now, however, they are Congress's problems.

1 | 2 | 3 | Next

Family Burden [Apr. 19, 2004]
India's Gandhi clan believes it is duty bound to lead the country. But voters in the current election may disagree

Subcontinental Divide [Feb. 16, 2004]
India's surging economy has changed the political debate, but not the lives of the majority of its citizens

Crafting a New Look [Jan. 19, 2004]
India's ruling Hindu-nationalist party is projecting a kinder, gentler image. Is its conversion for real?

Subcontinental Drift: Goodnight, Political Prince [Oct. 03, 2001]
With Madhavrao Scindia went the Congress Party's hopes of a reviva

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