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  • A Timeless Immigrant Story:
    Sonia Gandhi Turns Down Chance to be Indian Prime Minister

    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    MAY 23, 2004 - Sonia Gandhi, who was born in Lusiana near Vicenza about 57 years ago, has spent the last few weeks captivating the public as she unexpectedly won the election to become India's first foreign-born prime minister. Then, she unexpectedly turned down the offer and passed the honor to Manmohan Singh, the founder of India's economic reform program and a Gandhi ally. Indians - and the rest of the world - are left wondering what made Sonia Gandhi change her mind.

    But Italians who have lived in other countries might understand Gandhi's unique situation better than anyone else. As an Italian-born woman making a life in India, Gandhi's tale is the same as theirs. It is the timeless story of an immigrant finding her identity - and seeking acceptance from the people in her adopted land.

    Last week, Time magazine called her life the stuff of Bollywood films. She met her husband Rajiv Gandhi, grandson to former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and son to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, while he was studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. They married in 1968 and made a life in his native India. Reportedly, Sonia and her mother-in-law were quite close, but Sonia had no interest in politics. She hoped her husband would not seek election. But he led India until 1989, and in 1991 he faced the same fate as his mother and was assassinated by a suicide bomber.

    Sonia kept a low profile for six years after she lost Rajiv, according to newspaper reports. Her only political action came in an emotional speech in which she condemned the authorities for failing to act quickly in the quest to find her husband's murderers. Other politicians tried to convince her to join the Congress party in which her in-law family was a cornerstone. Eventually, she succumbed to their wishes. She became the third foreign-born woman to lead the century-old Congress party.

    Just after the announcement that she won India's premiership in a stunning upset of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, an Italian journalist asked Sonia how she felt about being an Italian holding office in India. Sonia's response: "I am Indian." In fact, she officially became an Indian citizen in 1984 after her mother-in-law was killed.

    That didn't stop opposing parties from referring to her as the Italian female dog or to her politically involved son as a mongrel or hybrid, writes commentator Egbert F. Bhatty for The Washington Dispatch. Her supporters accused these adversaries of reverse discrimination. Regardless, the slurs prompted debate about whether a foreigner was the right leader for India or for any country for that matter. Writers and broadcasters pointed out that a naturalized citizen can never be president of the United States or prime minister of Italy. They asked, "Why should it be different in India?"

    Apparently, it doesn't matter that Sonia has been living in India for nearly 40 years or that she raised her two children there. It doesn't matter that her husband and her mother-in-law, in effect, gave up their lives to serve the Indian people. It doesn't even matter that Sonia calls herself an Indian and not an Italian.

    Regardless of how she sees herself, some people will never see more than her Italian face or hear more than the remnants of her Italian accent when she speaks Hindi. Sounds familiar, no? In today's Italy, she will most likely be seen as an Indian. And in today's India, many will see her as an Italian.

    No one knows for sure why Sonia ended up refusing the premiership. Some say it is because of the criticism she received for being foreign born. Others think her children feared for her life if she were to accept the post. Still others say that declining the job allowed her to make a political statement, get her allies into power and still have time to tend to the Congress party. The only thing that is certain and that everyone can glean from Sonia's story is that people can never escape their past. Even after you come to terms with your history, you still have to convince the rest of the world to do the same. It is the plight of every immigrant and every immigrant's child.


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