Sonia Gandhi is an Italian-born Indian politician who has held the position of president of the ‘Indian National Congress’ party since 1998. She was re-elected to this position for the fourth time in 2010, thus becoming the longest-serving president in the 125-year-history of the ‘Congress’ party. She is also the chairperson of the ‘United Progressive Alliance’ in the Lok Sabha, a position she is serving since 2004. Sonia Gandhi is the first foreign-born person to become president of the ‘Congress’ party since India’s independence in 1947. Born in Italy, she came to India after marrying Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the politically powerful Nehru–Gandhi family, which had long been associated with the ‘Indian National Congress.’ She kept away from politics during the initial years of her marriage and vehemently refused to enter politics even after the tragic assassination of her husband in 1991. But the dwindling fortunes of the ‘Congress’ in the ensuing years motivated her to join the party as a primary member. Since then, she has played a significant role in Indian politics and is considered a powerful figure in the international political scenario as well. She was named among ‘Time 100 most influential people in the world’ in 2007 and 2008.
Childhood & Early Life
Sonia Gandhi was born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino on 9 December 1946, in Lusiana, Veneto, Italy, to Stefano and Paola Maino as one of their three daughters. Her father was a mason who owned a small construction business.
Antonia was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family and went to a Catholic school. In 1964, she enrolled at the Bell Educational Trust's language school in the city of Cambridge.
As a college student, she took up a job as a waitress at a Greek restaurant called the ‘Varsity Restaurant’ in Cambridge to pay her bills. While working at the restaurant, she met a young Indian named Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the politically powerful Nehru–Gandhi family, who was a mechanical engineering student at the ‘University of Cambridge.’ The couple soon fell in love and decided to get married.
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Antonia Maino married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968, in a Hindu ceremony. She adopted the name ‘Sonia Gandhi’ and moved into the house of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India.
Despite belonging to a prominent political family, Rajiv Gandhi was not much interested in politics. Also, he was not keen in an engineering career and pursued his true passion which was flying. He became a commercial airline pilot for ‘Indian Airlines,’ while Sonia settled into the role of a homemaker. The couple did not get involved in politics.
Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay was expected to follow in his mother’s footsteps. However, Sanjay died in a plane crash in 1980 and Indira Gandhi pressurized Rajiv to enter politics. Initially, both Rajiv and Sonia opposed the idea. However, Rajiv later on agreed to enter politics reluctantly.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her as the prime minister. As the prime minister’s wife, Sonia had no other option but to get involved in political matters.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 and being his widow, Sonia was considered by many as the natural heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. She was offered the leadership of the ‘Congress’ party, but she refused the offer and chose to stay away from politics.
She reluctantly changed her stance over the following years as she witnessed the dwindling fortunes of the ‘Congress.’ She joined the ‘Congress’ party as a primary member during the ‘Calcutta Plenary Session’ in 1997, and became the party leader in 1998. She was elected the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ of the 13th ‘Lok Sabha’ in 1999.
‘The Congress Party’ emerged as the single largest party in the 2004 ‘Lok Sabha’ elections. Since it failed to secure an absolute majority, the party subsequently formed a new coalition called the ‘United Progressive Alliance’ (UPA), and Sonia Gandhi was chosen to lead the coalition government. She, however, decided not to become the prime minister and selected the prominent economist Manmohan Singh to serve in this position.
In 2004, she was made the chairperson of the ‘National Advisory Council.’ In this position, she played a vital role in the enactment of the ‘National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’ and the ‘Right to Information Act’ in 2005. Sonia Gandhi was forced to resign from the ‘Lok Sabha’ and as chairperson of the ‘National Advisory Council’ in March 2006 after the controversy regarding office-of-profit. As per law, a member of parliament can’t hold an office-of-profit, and the post of chairperson of ‘National Advisory Council’ after coming under the purview of office-of-profit. Sonia Gandhi was reelected to parliament in May 2006 and subsequently the government exempted the post of the chairperson of ‘National Advisory Council’ from the purview of office-of-profit. She once again became the chairperson of the ‘National Advisory Council’ in 2010, serving till 2014. During the 2014 general elections, her party lost the power but she retained her seat in Rae Bareli. Currently, she is the president of the ‘Congress’ party, the principal opposition party in India.
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Awards & Achievements
In 2004, Sonia Gandhi was named the third most powerful woman in the world by ‘Forbes’ magazine.
In 2006, the ‘Order of Leopold’ was bestowed upon her by the government of Belgium.
She was listed among ‘The World's 50 Most Influential Figures’ in the year 2010 by ‘New Statesman.’
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1965, while living in Cambridge, she met and fell in love with a young Indian student named Rajiv Gandhi, who hailed from a powerful political family. Her family initially opposed her relationship as Rajiv was from a culture very different from their own. However, she persuaded her parents and the couple got married in 1968. They were blessed with two children, Rahul and Priyanka.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. Sonia chose to remain in India instead of moving back to Italy. She did not remarry.
Sonia Gandhi has an estimated net worth of around $2 billion.
Top 10 Facts You Did Not Know About Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi is a cleanliness freak, and often cleans her home herself.
Rajiv Gandhi wrote a poem for her when he saw her for the very first time—that’s how smitten he was by her beauty!
The first Indian movie she watched with Rajiv Gandhi was Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali.’
She used to call Indira Gandhi ‘Mummy.’
She is an excellent cook and is especially known for her red chili oil, a base for salad dressing.
Her love for books is famous, and she is known for her eclectic taste in literature. She is a big fan of Munshi Premchand’s novels.
She has an artistic bent of mind. She did an art restoration course from the ‘National Gallery of Modern Art.’
She is multilingual and can speak nine languages, including French and German.
Sonia Gandhi is known for her love for handloom sarees, especially traditional weaves.
She is committed to a strict fitness regime. She practices yoga daily and avoids junk food.