Peppered with anecdotes
Rasheed Kidwai draws on his first-hand experience as a correspondent covering the day-to-day affairs of the Congress party, to pen the portrait of its leader.
FOR a person who aspires to occupy the top political post in the country, little is known about Sonia Gandhi. The image of a lady who assiduously kept away from the world of politics despite being married into the country's premier political family has been around for long.
There are several other facets to the life of Sonia Gandhi that have not been looked at comprehensively: Her role as the daughter-in-law of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, as wife of the late Rajiv Gandhi the pilot who went on to become the Prime Minister and early parts of her life that influenced her. Rasheed Kidwai makes a feeble attempt to do so in Sonia: A Biography.
In 1997, when Sonia Gandhi decided to take a plunge into politics by announcing her decision to campaign for the Congress(I), the news no doubt had/made a major impact on the mood of party workers. A change was visible almost immediately. In the run-up to the general elections, the atmosphere around the 24, Akbar Road party headquarters was at best despondent. Since then Sonia Gandhi has travelled a long way even though it may be difficult to erase memories of her claim of having the support of 272 Members of Parliament in a futile bid to form an alternate government in 1999.
The book captures most of the political drama that unfolded during the days: The initial hiccups, her ascent to the top party post a bitter episode the Congress(I) could have done without the trials and tribulations of the party leader as she came to grips with complex political problems in the country.
It is not easy to write a biography about a person who is known to be reticent and the problem gets compounded when the attempt is not authorised. The author draws upon his experience as a correspondent covering the day-to-day affairs of the Congress party, particularly during the turbulent phase between 1996 and 1998.
Written in an easy-paced manner, the book is essentially woven around a compilation of anecdotes and versions accumulated by the author during the period he covered the party. The primary sources for it are various accounts and impressions of Congress(I) leaders, party workers, academicians and the few journalists who interacted with Sonia Gandhi. At several places it appears the author has drawn inferences from informal conversation either with him or with a group of scribes that essentially constitute an "off-the-record" narration. This, at times, creates suspicion whether pure gossip being peddled by leaders got embedded, although the author says that he crosschecked them to eliminate bias.
Such is the narrative that while the reader gets an "inside" account of the developments, one could easily be confused into thinking that the book is more about the contemporary history of the Congress(I) rather than an essay portraying the party president. While building an argument about Sonia Gandhi's inexperience in politics the manner in which she prepares, the people on whom she relies the author concludes through an interpretation of her presidential address at the Shimla party conclave that she takes her own decisions and is not guided by any coterie. To lend weight to this, he adds the interpretation of a social scientist and an academician.
The book is rather thin on her early life. Though there is a chapter where an attempt has been made to capture "A Long Journey from Orbassano", it appears to have been based on information culled from secondary sources. There are digressions too, both in the chapter and elsewhere. Factual inaccuracies have crept in at a couple of places. For instance while dealing with the infamous "hawala" case during 1996, the author notes that after the defeat of the Congress(I) in the general elections, the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation was "shunted out from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Delhi" when in actual fact he continued to be in the post till retirement.
Yet, the author has been rather candid in stating that the Congress party members should realise that putting Sonia Gandhi in the Prime Minister's chair would not be easy and has also disagreed with political writers who maintain that in the end she could propose someone else's name in case she was not acceptable. The author emphasises that those who are close to her assert that she alone would be a claimant for the top job. Overall, the book offers a ringside view of events as they unfolded, peppered with anecdotes, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusion as to who Sonia Gandhi is.
Sonia: A Biography, Rasheed Kidwai, Viking, Rs. 399.
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