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'I avoided value judgements on Sonia Gandhi'

books Updated: Nov 05, 2011 08:44 IST

Sonakshi Babbar, Hindustan Times
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From 1 Safdarjang Road to 10, Janpath, Sonia Gandhi has had an eventful journey. London-based journalist Rani Singh brings the spotlight on Sonia Gandhi's character, both private and professional in her book, Sonia Gandhi. Here're excerpts from an interview with the author.

SB: The book documents the life of Sonia Gandhi amidst turbulent personal and political times. Were you deliberately asked to skip the critical insight into the political nature of Sonia's life?

RS: My brief was to provide a vivid insight into the life of my subject; there was so much material that we had to make editorial decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. Those decisions were strictly editorial, based on space and number of words. There was no deliberate omission of anything.  In any case I have given clear insight into Mrs Sonia Gandhi's political concerns and motivations; where they originate and what her agenda is. But I have also, as stated in my preface, not sought to provide a definitive political critique but to tell the story of Sonia Gandhi using research and interviews with those who know or have known her.

SB: A blurb on the back of the book says "A moving tribute". Your sympathies are quite apparent as you've focused on the tragedies of the Sonia and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Have you deliberately omitted the controversial, snobbish, upper-middle class side of Sonia and Gandhi family?

RS: The book is a biography and so I took Mrs Sonia Gandhi, her own words and her own writings, as my starting point. The idea is to take the reader on Sonia's extremely eventful journey. So as far as possible, the material in the book was chosen for its relevance to her life and how it impacted on her; I tried to avoid value judgements since there was a story to tell. The story is so rich and I had so much material we had to edit as explained in my first answer. It is not so much about sympathy as it is about telling the story making the subject, Sonia Gandhi, the central focus of the narrative. As she and her family have been and are public figures there will be many different opinions about them all.

SB: While you've documented well the political situation when Rajiv Gandhi was in power, there's a passing reference to the Bofors scandal, corruption allegations against him. There's also the missing link about Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi's proximity to the Gandhi family because of Sonia.

RS: The book is about Sonia Gandhi; I had to be careful to keep to my central narrative. I needed to keep to items which moved the narrative on and also bear in mind that there is already a lot of detail in the book and the tolerance of the general international audience for extra detail which may or may not have much relevance in future.

SB: Your sources have been close aides of the Congress and also family friends of the Gandhi family. Did you also speak to Sonia's competitors for a different point of view to balance the narrative?

RS: I actually interviewed and quoted Sonia's competitors: Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Najma Heptulla, vice-president of the BJP, Maneka Gandhi, BJP MP, Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Commmunist Party of India (Marxist), Amar Singh, and I also went into detail on opposition attacks on Sonia Gandhi.

SB: Since the book throws light on the 'personal' of Sonia's life, there's very little about her religion. Why?

RS: I have stated quite clearly that Sonia Gandhi attended a Salesian Catholic convent. This happened in Italy, a predominantly Catholic country. Sonia Gandhi, like much of her adopted family, is very open to the influences of other religions, as can be seen from her actions.

SB: Often Sonia's apparent earlier disinterest in politics is seen as a political stunt, but the book put the onus on her private nature and tragic circumstances. Do you think the Indian reader would believe her portrayal of a woman forced into the political arena?

Surely they would. Sonia Gandhi had the chance to enter politics earlier. As I have shown, in 1991 she was considered more than capable of running for election, indeed constituents in Uttar Pradesh requested it, but she steadfastly refused.

SB: What was most fascinating revelation for you while you were researching for the book?

RS: There were several. I was very interested to find the extent to which Mrs Sonia Gandhi had been involved in serious constituency work way before she formally entered the political arena. What happened after Rajiv Gandhi was killed was a real focal point for me, for it is in how we deal with such life-changing events that our true characters and personalities are revealed. So the interaction with the Soka Gakkai President Dr Daisaku Ikeda was interesting as it happened just nine months after the assassination, and to the best of my knowledge is one of the few recorded exchanges of that time. I was also fascinated to learn about how Mrs Sonia Gandhi was in the regular meetings that were held for the  Rajiv Gandhi Foundation at her home from those she trusted and who met with her on weekly basis.

SB: The book explores the human relationships between Sonia and her family. Do you think a lack of access to Sonia herself came in the way of the research? How did you manage to cover up this problem?

RS: My research in the archives and my many other interviews in any case would have needed to take place  so I just got on and collected as much as I could as I was on a deadline and had to deliver a biography. There are thousands of acceptable biographies written in this way. Through the extensive research and interviews, I have constructed for the reader a very strong understanding of Sonia Gandhi's character, both private and professional.

SB: There're lines in the book like 'White- Hindu colour of mourning- which clearly show that you had an audience in mind while writing the book. Did you write the books with a global audience in mind?

RS: Palgrave Macmillan asked for the book to be written in the first instance for a general American readership. So that is what I did. But it has special new information in it that would appeal to Indian readers too.

SB: What was the process of research? What were your main sources of information?

As I had just ten months from the finalization of my contract to delivery of the first manuscript, my research was time-bound.

I read as many books as I could get hold of in the UK  and in India, I talked to as many people as I could, I interviewed as much as possible, I went into archives, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, I trawled through old  newspapers on microfilm in the NMML and studied photographs-official and unofficial . The Parliamentary Library yielded interesting information, visual and written, which was very well catalogued. I watched DVDs, including all the Hindustan Times summits. I also read the book records of the HT summits since sometimes there were small differences. I watched, logged and translated hours of television footage in the library of TV Today.The Outlook Group editor-in-chief gave me access to his library.  The more than 100 interviews I conducted yielded fascinating material, only some of which is in the book. I now have a vast exclusive oral archive on Sonia Gandhi systematically logged, transcribed, and stored in alphabetical order. The background and off- the-record interviews are extremely valuable to me.

I also visited relevant locations in Delhi which I found very helpful