It was an affair that started in Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s native country: Italy. It was one that brought Ambika Soni, currently Union minister, to New Delhi - the nerve centre of Indian politics. And it is one that has matured into a lifelong relationship. All thanks to Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Had she not zeroed in on Ambika, then a homemaker, Ambika would perhaps be globetrotting with her diplomat husband Uday. She does that even now, except it is for his rival – the Congress party. Yes, it took a lot of her time and attention, leaving Uday to read the major part of the poetry he had originally written for her.
Their courtship was laced with poetry, but she never understood much of Ghalib and Iqbal. When she did memorise a few couplets and recite them to Uday, she did not know she was mooting separation.
Marriage settled the language tussle: he stuck to Urdu and Ambika to English.
Uday’s first posting was in Cuba but Mrs Gandhi “hijacked” Ambika when the couple was posted in Rome. “You must,” she told her when she first set eyes on her, “join politics.” She paid little heed to Ambika’s kid-and-husband concern. Instead, she put her on her plane, took her to Hungary and in a way changed the course of her life.
Those who remember the 70s recall Ambika as a perfect mix of beauty and brains. “I have,” said Amarinder Singh, former CM of Punjab, “seen her since the Youth Congress days. She was young, perky and highly intelligent. If she said you were her friend, then she would back you through thick and thin. I have watched her mature from a young girl to an experienced politician.”
Ambika struck many with her looks and guts. She was among the few who could walk beside Sanjay Gandhi instead of following him around. In the Youth Congress, she not only shared the dais with Sanjay but sufficiently matched his aggression. If Sanjay was a politician in a hurry to get things done, Ambika rarely faulted on delivery.
Add to that Mrs Gandhi’s affection and Ambika had no regrets about quitting a cushy domestic life for the dusty road in politics, particularly at the time she joined it.
Then it was a male-dominated profession and had little place for women, least of all the young, attractive, English-speaking Ambika variety. Then Ambika did not understand the concern of senior women politicians who told her not to talk to anyone. “They were protective of me,” Ambika told HT.
She made her political debut in 1975 as president of the Indian Youth Congress. Apart from being a Rajya Sabha member, she has held party posts like heading the All India Mahila Congress, state unit of the Punjab Congress and serving as party general secretary. Given her range, it would not be incorrect to place her in the vintage category or fault her for frowning at upstarts or the self-styled brand of leaders. She stands tall because she was groomed by Mrs Gandhi: the politician par excellence at a time when many of her colleagues were nowhere on the scene.
There are a few things not known about her. One is that her family name is Wadhwa; two that her father was a Sen and three that her family converted to Christianity. Or the fact that she struggled with chapatis and rarely got them right.
The series is concluded