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By invitation only

India’s first I&B minister Indira Gandhi invited Ambika Soni to join the Congress in 1969. Forty years later, Soni takes charge as the country’s new I&B minister. Pankaj Vohra comments.
Hindustan Times | By Pankaj Vohra
UPDATED ON MAY 29, 2009 11:10 PM IST

It was in Havana in the late 1960s that Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni, 66, then a student of Spanish, found motivation to join politics. Her husband, Uday Soni, an Indian Foreign Service officer, was posted in that distant city. The young Ambika was inspired by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul and decided to work for India’s people through politics.

The perfect opportunity presented itself in the tumultuous year of 1969. That year, the Congress party split into two. Indira Gandhi, who led one of the two groups, invited Soni to join her party. Soni was then living in Rome.

A couple of years later, Soni flew with Indira into Delhi from Rome and shortly afterwards was made joint secretary in charge of the AICC foreign relations cell.

Asked for comments after being appointed the I&B minister, Ambika said, “I’m overwhelmed by emotion. It is a matter of great pride to be given the charge especially since Indiraji was the first I&B minister of this country. I’m thankful to both Soniaji and the Prime Minister for this opportunity’’.

Soni’s has not been an easy journey. She found herself in the political wilderness after the defeat of the Congress in 1977. At the time, she was president of the Indian Youth Congress and among the closest associates of Sanjay Gandhi. She made a comeback when Rajiv Gandhi acknowledged her contribution and appointed her in a policy planning group with VN Gadgil, Pawan Bansal and Jayanti Natrajan. The group was going into the question of lowering the age of voting. There was no looking back after that and she first became the president of the Mahila Congress and subsequently president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee and then the general secretary of the AICC soon after Sonia Gandhi took over as the party president in 1998.

“Ambika Soni has this great resilience in her. Her never-say-die spirit has seen her through many ups and downs. Her integrity has been unimpeachable and her loyalty to the Congress and Sonia Gandhi is beyond any question,’’ says Professor Deepak Malhotra, who has been associated with her from the time she was general secretary of IYC and he the general secretary of NSUI in 1974.

Ambika was close to Sharad Pawar at one time but she was the only one in the Congress Working Committee who came to Sonia Gandhi’s defence when Pawar and some others attacked her and questioned her ability to lead the party by raising the foreign origin issue with her. Pawar subsequently had to leave the party along with P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar. Since then she has been in the inner group of the party and is on every important body of the AICC.

Ambika takes over as the Information and Broadcasting minister at a very crucial time for the government, which is seeking to reach out to the aam aadmi and thereby extend its various welfare schemes to the far-flung corners of the country. She’s also going to face many challenges with many foreign media groups wanting to have a greater presence in this country. She has already acquitted herself creditably in handling the media for the AICC. Her role is obviously many times larger than before.

Former Punjab CM Amarinder Singh who is a close friend of hers, says, “The ministry is cut out for her. It is the best job for her and she will be hands on from the first day itself. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and I’m sure that her performance will justify her selection by the High Command.”

Another close colleague said on condition of anonymity, “She has this tremendous ability to articulate. She is very good at drafting. She has total fluency in several languages — English, French, Spanish, Hindi, Punjabi — which always gives her an edge. She is both honest and very hard working and does not leave anything to chance.”

Apart from Indira Gandhi, Ambika’s initial mentors in politics were late Chandrajit Yadav and late Chandrashekhar, both senior politicians. She also helped in shaping the political destinies of many and has played an important role in the party affairs. But has never compromised on her loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. In 2004, when Ms Gandhi renounced power and decided to stay away from the government, Ambika who was invited to join the central government by Manmohan Singh as the I&B minister decided to stay in the party too. It was later in January 2006 Ms. Gandhi persuaded her to take over as the Tourism and Culture Minister where her performance earned all round praise.

Ambika wanted to contest for Lok Sabha from Anandpur Saheb seat in Punjab this time. She had worked very hard in the constituency and was looking forward to a contest with the Akalis. But the party decided that no Rajya Sabha MP from a state where the Congress was in opposition should contest.

Ambika was very fond of her late father Nakul Sen, ICS who wanted to see his daughter on an elevated political platform. In fact her family’s association with the Nehru-Gandhis started while her father was posted as Collector of Amritsar during the Partition and worked very closely with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on the rehabilitation of refugees.

Ambika belongs to a very illustrious family of Punjab. Her father in law was a Judge of the undivided Punjab High Court. She and her husband are now doting grandparents to two children of their only son Anup and his wife, Sylvia. But work and party will always continue to be high on her agenda.

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