India, along with Pakistan, is one of the key battlegrounds in the struggle against Islamist terror for the future of civilization. The largest democracy in the world, India has suffered its own severe Jihadist terror attacks, albeit little—reported in American mass media. However, the position and influence of one person, an Italian-born and female, may adversely constrain India’s ability to play its role to the fullest degree in combatting this worldwide threat.
Sonia Gandhi is one of India’s most influential politicians, but her power and positions are little-known overseas. She is the leader of the Congress Party that leads the coalition government presently in power in India. Though not a formal member of the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she is probably India’s most influential politician.
While Pakistan’s General Musharraf is comparatively well-known to Americans, what little they may know about Sonia Gandhi is limited to the fairy tale romance of her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of India’s most powerful political dynasty. Considering her position in Indian politics and India’s key role in the war on terror, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation. This article and its second part are written to fill this void.
According to official records, Sonia Gandhi was born Antonia Maino in December 1946 to working class parents in Orbassano, Italy, an industrial suburb of Turin. Very little is known of her early life before she met Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge in 1965, and married him in 1968. They both moved to New Delhi and took up residence with Rajiv’s mother Indira Gandhi who was then prime minister of India.
Rajiv, then working as a commercial pilot, seemed to have no political ambitions at the time. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 at the hands of Sikh militants drastically changed the picture. It vaulted Rajiv to the position of India’s prime minister as his mother’s successor. Sonia suddenly found herself one of the most privileged women in the world.
Rajiv Gandhi’s five-year term as prime minister was rocked by corruption scandals over kickbacks in what is known as the Bofors deal, involving the purchase of howitzers for the Indian Army. The scandal resulted in his defeat in the 1989 elections. His administration was also embroiled in a costly military adventure in Sri Lanka. It was Rajiv Gandhi’s Bay of Pigs, but with a deadly outcome. In May 1991 he was blown up by Sri Lankan LTTE suicide bombers, non-Islamist terrorists who long have bedeviled South Asia.
The loss of two of her closest relatives, her husband Rajiv and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, to sectarian violence seems to have left a permanent scar on her and may account for her extreme reticence on the subject of Jihadi terrorism.
Her husband’s untimely death left Sonia Gandhi extremely wealthy. The true extent of her wealth became known only when the Soviet archives were thrown open following the collapse of the Soviet Union. KGB archives revealed that as far back as 1982, when Indira Gandhiwas still prime minister, Soviet trading agencies were channeling funds into a company controlled by her son and future Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
This was brought to light by the Harvard Russian scholar Yvgenia Albats in her bookThe State Within A State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia. The Swiss news magazine Schweizer Illustrierte (November 11, 1991) provided more details. Citing newly-opened KGB records, it reported that Sonia Gandhi, widow of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was controlling a secret account worth 2.5 billion Swiss francs (about 2 billion dollars at current exchange rates) in a Swiss bank in her minor son’s name. This was reported also by the Indian columnist A.G. Noorani in 1998.
In addition to assets in foreign banks worth billions of dollars, Sonia Gandhicontrols at least as much within India, in the form of trusts, funds and foundations in the names of Nehru and Gandhi. Soon after Rajiv’s assassination, a sympathetic nation voted her a billion rupees (about 22 million dollars at today’s exchange rate) to set up a foundation in her husband’s memory. All this gives her the power to dispense political favors and patronage on a vast scale.
Sonia Gandhi today has two major assets: identification with the greatest political dynasty in India — the Nehru-Gandhis — and enormous wealth. She is not related to Mahatma Gandhi. Rajiv was Nehru’s grandson. The Gandhi name comes from Nehru’s daughter Indira’s marriage to Feroz Gandhi, unrelated to the Mahatma. The impact of the Nehru—Gandhi name in India, especially to earlier generations, may be compared to that of a hypothetical Washington-Jefferson dynasty to Americans 200 years ago.
The source of Sonia Gandhi’s power today is her great wealth rather than the name. The Congress Party she heads is not now the force it once was in India. Her own performance after she entered politics about 15 years ago has been lackluster. She twice tried to assume power as prime minister but failed on both occasions.
In 2004, after President Abdul Kalam declined to invite her to form the government, she claimed that she is not interested in power but only in serving the country. This is belied by facts. In 1999, when the government lost its majority, she approached the then President K.R. Narayanan with the false claim that she had enough support in the parliament to form a government. The President rejected her claim.
Following her second failure, she chose the distinguished economist and former chief of the Reserve Bank (India’s Federal Reserve) Manmohan Singh to head the coalition government. But even without official position, as the leader of the largest coalition partner, she wields considerable power in the government headed by her hand-picked Prime Minister.
Sonia Gandhi’s main responsibility is to keep the coalition together. This means keeping her alliance partners happy. As a result of this peculiar arrangement, she finds herself in the situation of power without responsibility and responsibility without power. Within the Congress Party, she has total power but no responsibility, as she is not a member of the government. As the coordinator of the ruling coalition, she has the responsibility for keeping it together, but with no power over other non-Congress parties and leaders.
Thus, for all her enormous resources, she is unable to control other members of the coalition. They can at any time withdraw support and bring the government down. This means she cannot afford to take a stand against her principal allies who keep the coalition afloat. Her largest allies are the regional satraps from India’s most populous state: Uttar Pradesh, which contain a significant Muslim population. They can exert pressure on Mrs. Gandhi through their power brokers whose support she cannot do without.
In a strange way, Sonia Gandhi finds herself in a position quite similar to General Musharraf’s back in the day. Just as Musharraf had to keep his Islamist allies happy, Sonia Gandhi too feels that she has to keep her Muslim power brokers happy in order for the government to survive. She and her family now enjoy security guards provided by the government. She will lose this protection once the coalition government falls. This has made her soft in the face of provocation by Islamic fundamentalist forces. This vulnerability and its potential impact on the global war on terror is something that Americans and the world at large need to know and understand.
A version of this piece first appeared in the American Thinker.
Sonia Gandhi’s softness towards Islamic Fundamentalists runs the risk of making India an attractive destination for the Jihadis. As noted in the previous part, Sonia Gandhi, though not officially a member of the government has the responsibility for keeping the ruling coalition afloat. Her principal coalition partners which include Islamic power brokers are in a position to make demands which she is not in a position to reject. As a result, her power and influence are constrained by the compulsions of coalition politics.
In addition to this concern for political stability, there appears also to be an element of concern for personal safety. Weighed down by the history of political assassinations in her family, one of her concerns is not to jeopardize the government protection that she and her family now enjoy, or take positions that may give offense to Islamic fundamentalists.
This is reflected in the softness of her responses even in the face of extreme provocation by Islamic groups. In an earlier election, Ram Vilas Paswan, one of her allies and a cabinet minister, paraded an Osama Bin Laden look—alike to appeal to Muslim voters. Sonia Gandhi maintained a discreet silence.
International Muslim organizations have also played on her fears and used her for their propaganda purposes. In November 2001, when the world was still recovering from the shock of the 9/11 attacks, Sonia Gandhiwas asked to give a lecture at the Bin Laden family funded Oxford Center for Islamic Studies.
In her talk titled ‘Conflict and coexistence in our age,’ Mrs. Gandhi spoke vaguely about extremism and fundamentalism, ‘of all religions’ without once mentioning the word Jihad or terrorism. Sonia Gandhi has never once uttered the word “Jihad” or mentioned Islamic terror in public even though India is one of the worst victims of Jihadi terrorism. The Telegraph of London called it a ‘strongly pro—Muslim speech.’
Sonia Gandhi is not an Islamic scholar— she has not even graduated high school. There was no reason for her to be invited to such a high profile institution, at such an inopportune time except its propaganda value. This proved suicidal for her party in the Gujarat state elections where the Congress was trounced. Adding to her troubles was a terrorist attack on a train that killed scores of passengers, mostly women and children. There again she failed to denounce Islamic terror.
It was the same story again when on July 5, 2005 (two days before the London bombings) a band of Muslim terrorists armed with grenades and AK 47 rifles attacked a temple complex at the sacred Hindu site of Ayodhya. Thanks to the vigilance and the speedy response of the security forces, all the terrorists were killed before they could do serious damage. Still there was a gun battle lasting hours and a soldier was killed, but the intended holocaust of Hindu devotees was averted.
Sonia Gandhi did not instantaneously condemn the terrorist attack. All she did was to issue a weak statement appealing to the people to “stand as a rock against the divisive forces.” As was the case after the London blasts, there was talk of “backlash.” Teesta Setalvad, a Muslim activist close to Sonia Gandhi cautioned that the attack on the Ayodhya temple should not be labeled as Jihad. As usual, Mrs. Gandhi did not use the word Jihad.
Her appeasement policy came to the fore again in a human rights case that has drawn international attention. When Imrana, a young Muslim woman was raped by her father-in-law, a self-appointed Muslim body calling itself the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, issued a ruling that the rape had made Imrana ‘impure’ (haram) and that her marriage to her husband therefore stood annulled. Adding insult to injury, it directed Imrana to leave her husband and live with her rapist father-in-law as one of his wives!
There were protests all over India and the whole world reacted with shock. Salman Rushdie, himself a victim of Islamic persecution, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times denouncing Islamic courts and the Sharia (Islamic code). In the midst of the storm, Sonia Gandhi refused to intervene or even condemn it. Instead, she directed her government’s law minister H.R. Bharadwaj, once her close advisor, to issue a statement exonerating the Muslim Personal Law Board— saying that the government could not “interfere” in a religious matter.
Emboldened by Sonia Gandhi’s softness, Islamic organizations worldwide have begun to channel their prospective trainees to madrasas in India. While Indian embassies and consulates have standing instructions to deny visas to students seeking admission to madrasas, of late they are coming under pressure from politicians and officials close to SoniaGandhi to waive objections and issue student visas. While Pakistan has announced a policy of expelling foreign students from its madrasas, Sonia Gandhi seems to be following the opposite course.
If this trend continues, with Sonia Gandhi on the path of appeasement, India, like Pakistan, may become a problem area in the global war against terrorism. When that happens, the threat will be far greater because, unlike with Pakistan, India’s subversion will be covert and the world is totally unprepared for it.
Considering her family’s history of tragedies, Sonia Gandhi’s fear of Islamic terror is entirely understandable. She is protected, however, by the Indian public and the security forces, both of which are victims of Jihadi terrorism. Unlike Musharraf in the past, Sonia Gandhi is enjoying immunity from scrutiny because of her association with India’s people and its security forces.
The war against terror is not just India’s war or America’s war; it is a world war. It is time for Sonia Gandhi, arguably India’s most influential politician, to take a firm and unequivocal stand against Jihadi terror and declare which side she is on in this existential war for the survival of freedom and civilization.
A version of this piece was first published in the American Thinker.
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