Sonia Gandhi and the Italian stereotype

Two events, this week, collided improbably to create a moment of reflection. On 13 March, Mrs Sonia Gandhi completed 15 years as the President of the Indian Congress. As an act of survival and leadership, it was a major achievement, demanding its own collection of editorials. When she became President, the Congress was ruling three states and today it still prevails in thirteen.

To spike the event and add that wonderful touch of irony, Italy decided not to send back the two marines accused of shooting two fishermen off the coast of Kerala. The diplomatic furore immediately deteriorated into conspiracy theories centred around Mrs Gandhi's Italian origins.

The very colliding of the two events has a touch of the opera, triggering prejudices to full throated splendour. Over the course of her political career, Sonia has run the gauntlet through the tyranny of caricatures. She was white, Catholic, and a woman and thus seen as a subversive force, a virus introduced into the Gandhi family. But she also did not fit within a colonial framework and its repertoire of gora sahib stereotypes. Sonia was Catholic and Italian, and the slander mill had to work harder.

The Hindu right tried to show that she was never fully Indian and that she tried to resettle abroad after the Emergency. It stooped low enough to question her credentials about being a Cambridge graduate. Snootily, in a way only a colonial mind can, they claimed that she was not a genuine graduate, but an arriviste finishing an extramural course on languages.

Sonia Gandhi, stands in front of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi's portrait at New Delhi residence in this 1996 file photo.

Sonia Gandhi, stands in front of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi's portrait at New Delhi residence in this 1996 file photo.

As she became entrenched into the Gandhi family, her rabid opponents turned their energies to detecting sinister meanings in the word Italian, which became shorthand for various strategies of impugnment. As an observant friend said, tongue in cheek. Sonia was the Italian connection, responsible for the Italian Job and the Roman Holiday, creating in India an Italian opera.

To these glib labels, we've added a potpourri of terms from Italian history like fascist, mafia, and missionary. The full play of these loosely used labels showed the stereotypes of the Indian mind viciously played out in Indian politics.

Sonia has been accused of being from a fascist family. In the Italy of the time, fascist did not always connote dictatorial. It reflected a loyalty, a politics which is still problematic.

The second gambit came with the Quattrocchi affair. Quattrocchi was seen as close to the family and the Italian Job or the Quattrocchi affair haunts the Gandhi reputation and bank balance to this day. There indictment of Sonia was based on the presumption that the Mafia or its criminal ways are genetic to all Italians.

Then came the scandal of the Italian marines shooting two Indian fishermen. The Supreme Court graciously let them home for Christmas and allowed them to return home to vote. Thus began what journalists called the Roman holiday, ruining wonderful memories of the old classic starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Listing them out one senses the rampant power and the utter superficiality of stereotypes, held together solely by virtue of mental association.

But let us not forget that when Sonia was being attacked in the Parliament, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who intervened gracefully to prevent such behaviour. But let us not also forget that for every Vajpayee, there are always a Subramaniam Swamy and a Narendra Modi.

Sonia has skittled the Italian stereotype by playing to an array of Indian stereotypes. Indians love the family and are sentimental about the Bahu. The rituals demand that she is seen as lost and vulnerable, the gift of another family that we must absorb and internalise. Playing the Bahu to Indira Gandhi, she gained legitimacy and learnt the tricks of the trade.

From Bahu, she segued into the Mother India image, playing to the spirit of nurturance and renunciation. Her refusal to be PM was seen as a poetic act, an almost spiritual one. As a woman, she is seen as protective of the family, nurturant of the party, and protective of the nation. Even Narendra Modi digging up into Vivekananda could not come up with this match between metaphors and role models.

The Indian stereotype beautifully played by Sonia had held back the Italian suspicions. Yet there is an aftermath of bitterness. One wonders how much more we ought to tolerate this scurrilous labelling that goes on in the name of patriotism. These insults, which are ethnic or racist, need an unequivocal response. The beauty of democracy is that it plays out both dramas letting the spectator judge which is the superior performance.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science Nomad.

Independence Day