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Sonia Gandhi:
A Consummate Operator who Tumbled
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Continued from “Whom to Believe?”

What Really Happened in 2004? - Part II

The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Before evaluating the veracity of various versions as to what really happened in 2004, namely, why Sonia Gandhi chose to opt out of the race to become Prime Minister and how Manmohan Singh was chosen, it’s necessary to assess the Dramatis Personae of the 2004 post-election scenario.

At the center of the recent controversy as to what really happened in 2004 are two politicians, namely, master manipulator, Sonia Gandhi and self-effacing, Manmohan Singh and two versions of so-called insiders, namely, Sanjay Baru author of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh and the courtier-turned-critic, Natwar Singh who after years of political exile decided to give his version in his autobiography, One Life Is Not Enough.

Fractured Verdict

The whole 2004 drama unfolded in the aftermath of general election in which no single political party emerged with sufficient numbers to make a bid to form the Government. The United Progressive Alliance wasn’t a pre-poll conglomeration. It came into being soon after the results of 2004 general elections. It was a polygamous marriage of convenience when it had become clear that no party had won an absolute majority. The hitherto ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), expected to return to power, won only 169 seats in the 543-member 14th Lok Sabha, as opposed the UPA’s tally of 222 seats.

The Left Front with 59 MPs (excluding the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee) the Samajwadi Party with 39 MPs and the Bahujan Samaj Party with 19 MPs were other main groups that opted to support UPA at various phases of its rule. The UPA did not enjoy a simple majority on its own in the parliament. It relied on external support to ensure that it had the confidence of the Indian parliament similar to the formula adopted by the previous minority governments of the United Front, the NDA, the Congress government of P. V. Narasimha Rao, and earlier governments of V. P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar.


Sonia Gandhi as head of UPA, which had a larger number of supporters than NDA, received the invitation to form government and prove its majority on the floor of the house.

Thereafter the predominant political player on the scene was Sonia Gandhi who played her cards extremely deftly. And she has since straddled the political landscape of India like a colossus till the tide turned in 2014. Till then, it was Sonia and Sonia all the way. What sort of person is she, and what are the reasons for her phenomenal success till 2014? Indeed, the Italian-born Sonia is a complex character. There are at least four Sonia’s whose sketches follow. Take your pick.

Sonia in Red Saree

Spanish novelist Javier Moro’s unauthorized biography of Sonia Gandhi, The Red Saree: When Life is The Price of Power, has, understandably, triggered a war of words between the Congress and the writer that shows no signs of abating.

The legal firm of loyal courtier, Abhishek Manu Singhvi has issued a defamation notice to Moro. It contends that the biography is “full of untruths, half-truths, falsehoods, defamatory statements, completely imaginary and invented conversations with quotation marks and narrations of nonexistent situations in the first person.” Moro admits it is a “fictionalized biography” which shows Sonia as a dutiful daughter-in-law, a fiercely loyal wife, a protective mother and a responsible elder sister-in-law to Maneka Gandhi.

Singhvi’s objections are centered mainly around the passages that show Sonia wanting to go back to Italy with Rajiv and their children after the electoral drubbing that Indira Gandhi got in 1977. In these passages, Moro resorts to the writer’s device of reporting conversations as if he were present on the occasion.

He uses the same literary technique to recreate the pressure on Sonia from her mother, Paola Maino, and her elder sister, Anushka, to leave the country and settle down in their home town, Orbassano, near Turin in Italy, in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. These passages haven’t gone down well with the Congress, which is demanding a ban on the English translation.

In a disclaimer, which Moro maintains is being carried in all new editions of the book in bold print on the opening page, he admits that “dialogues, conversations and situations found therein are the product of the author’s own interpretation and do not necessarily reflect authenticity.” He also maintains that he has had extensive conversations with the late Usha Bhagat, who used to be Indira Gandhi’s social secretary, to recreate the contentious conversations.

Partner in Maruti Swindle

Nothing brings out Sonia Gandhi as she was before her later incarnation better than the murky goings-on which are a part of the burlesque named the Small Car Project of Sanjay Gandhi in which Sonia played a prominent role with all her fingers in the pie. The Maruti episode sheds light on the kind of ambitions that Indira Gandhi’s “innocent” and “reticent” foreign bahu had nurtured for long and of how she had no qualms about breaking laws of the land.

It all began with the launch of a company called the Maruti Technical Services Private Limited (MTSPL) on November 16, 1970. It was set up by Sanjay Gandhi along with her to provide technical know-how for the design, manufacture and assembly of “a wholly indigenous motor car”. The story of this company provides valuable insights into the mental working of Sonia Gandhi, credited with much innocence and gullibility by her admirers.

The articles of association of MTSPL named Sanjay and Sonia as the first and permanent directors of the company, who between them held 20 shares of Rs. 10 each. In other words, the company’s paid-up capital was Rs. 200 at its launch.

On November 21, 1970, just days after its incorporation, the MTSPL entered into an agreement with Sanjay Gandhi, who owned 50 per cent of it. Under this agreement, Sanjay agreed to render “technical know-how” to the company for a consideration of Rs. 3 lakh. (Incidentally, Sanjay’s only technical expertise consisted of a few weeks’ apprenticeship in Rolls Royce. And Sonia Gandhi had none whatever other than threading a needle.)

Months later, in June, 1971, the Maruti Limited was incorporated under the Companies Act and Sanjay Gandhi became its managing director. On June 2, 1972, the MTSPL entered into an agreement with Maruti Limited according to which the MTSPL was to be paid Rs. 5 lakh in lump sum by the latter for providing the technical know-how to Maruti Limited. This document described the MTSPL of which Sanjay and Sonia were the only directors, as a technical company “which has the capability of impacting technical know-how for the design, manufacture and assembly in India of a wholly indigenous motor car.” It was also entitled to an annual technical fee of 2 per cent of the net sales of the motor cars. Six weeks after this agreement, the Maruti Limited paid the promised Rs.5 lakh to the MTSPL.

The next move came about a year later. The MTSPL appointed Sonia Gandhi, its managing director. This happened at an “extraordinary general meeting of the shareholders” held on January 25, 1973. Soon, thereafter, the MTSPL signed an agreement with Sonia Gandhi as per which she was to remain the managing director of the company for five years. She was to get a salary of Rs. 2000 per month and one per cent commission on the net profits of the company.

Sometime later the company allotted 2000 shares to Sonia Gandhi, but for some reason this was later subdivided into two share certificates of 1900 and 100 shares respectively and 1900 shares were allotted to Sonia on February 4, 1974. On the same day 4000 shares each were allotted to Priyanka and Rahul, the two minor children of Sonia and Rajiv.

Even more fascinating was the decision of the Nehru-Gandhi family to launch yet another company, to make among other things, road rollers, and to appoint Sonia Gandhi as the managing director of this firm as well. This company, called the Maruti Heavy Vehicles Private Limited, had 13 share-holders but the Nehru-Gandhis had the controlling shares. It was incorporated on February 22, 1974 and Sonia Gandhi acquired 5000 shares in it. She entered into an agreement with this company on September 28, 1974 in regard to her appointment as its MD.

In 1975, this “road roller company” too sought out the Maruti Technical Services Company, the “know-how” company, in search of know-how to make road rollers.

An agreement was signed on April 1, 1975 between the two companies as per which the road roller company was to pay the know-how company two per cent of net sales of road rollers and spare parts.

Did Sonia Gandhi, who was then a citizen of Italy, violate any Indian laws by becoming the managing director of an Indian company and by acquiring shares in Indian companies? Was the MTSPL, which was floated by Sanjay and Sonia, ever competent, to provide technical know-how to make “a wholly indigenous motor car” and road rollers? Was Sonia Gandhi competent to be the managing director of such companies?

The Morarjibhai Desai-led Janata Government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Justice A C Gupta which probed the Maruti scandal and submitted its report in 1978. It provides the answers to all these questions. The commission’s report says S M Rege, who was secretary of the Maruti Limited, told the commission that it was known to all concerned that Sonia Gandhi was a foreign national and not a citizen of India. S Kumar, registrar of companies, Delhi and Haryana, said the allotment of shares of the MTSPL and MHVPL to Sonia Gandhi in 1974 was in contravention of the Foreign Exchange Regulation act, 1973 “and therefore ab initio void”.

As the Justice Gupta Commission concluded, “It was a fact known to all concerned that Sonia Gandhi was a foreign national.” In view of the provisions of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1973, which came into force on January 1, 1974, she could neither hold shares of any Indian company nor hold any office of profit in such company from the date the act came into force without the prior approval of the Reserve Bank of India. Ultimately, she tendered her resignation on January 21, 1975.

Section 28(1) of the FERA laid down that a person who is not a citizen of India “cannot, except with the general or special permission of the Reserve Bank act or accept appointment as technical or management adviser in India of any person or company. Yet, she continued as managing director and resigned only on January 21, 1975. She had thus violated FERA for over a year. Section 56 of the act, which lists the punishment for contravention FERA, says that violations of this nature can attract imprisonment for periods ranging from six months to seven years.

But, laws you and I know, are for lesser mortals. And most certainly they’re not for the members of the royal family.

It is also surprising how Sonia Gandhi who did not have any technical qualification should be appointed managing director of a technical company. Quite a large sum of money was paid to her on account of her salary and perquisites during the period she remained the managing director of the company.

The Gupta Commission report records how an intrepid income-tax officer, A Banerjee, disallowed part of the remuneration paid to Sonia Gandhi as excessive “because she had no qualifications to be able to render any technical service to the company.”

The commission also examined the question as to whether the MTSPL floated by Sanjay and Sonia was competent to provide the know-how to make cars and road rollers. W H F Muller, a German technician on the staff of the MTSPL told the commission that all that the Maruti Limited produced were 10 to 12 prototypes which were “hand-made”, “fabricated/purchased in parts” and not of the same design. They were different from one another. Another witness said the MTSPL had no qualified graduate engineer for design on their rolls. There was no fixed and finalized design for the vehicles nor any research and development facility.

No wonder the Gupta Commission concluded that the “Maruti Technical Services was not competent to render technical know-how in respect of motor cars. There is no evidence that it had the know-how in respect of road rollers.”

UPA Supremo

The same Sonia, after Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, refused the invitation of Congress leaders to take over the government and chose to stay away from politics despite constant prodding from the party. She finally agreed to join politics in 1997. (In 1998, she was elected President of the Congress party, a position she continues to occupy for over a decade and half – something that has never happened in the long history of the party.

(You wonder how members of Congress party who could challenge Gandhi’s nominee for Presidentship, have agreed to let the once-almighty party turn into a family fief?)

Sonia Gandhi has served as the Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2014 when the Alliance lost the elections to BJP. This position offered her the unique opportunity of exercising all power without any accountability – the dream of any politician. And all this despite her controversial friendship with Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, accused of being a middleman in the Bofors scandal.

Sonia Gandhi’s nomination papers show that she owns neither a car nor a home in India. A report once in Huffington Post rated her as the 12th richest political leader in the world. However, The Post later retracted the claim.


The ruthlessly authoritarian trait in Sonia in unmistakable! In May 1999, three senior leaders of the party – Sharad Pawar, Purno A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar – challenged her right to become prime minister because of her foreign origins. She responded by offering to resign as party chief, resulting in an outpouring of support for her and the expulsion from the party of the three rebels.

If ever there was a politician who so uncannily capitalized on two typical Indian weaknesses, namely, courtiers are content to pick up crumbs passed from the high table, and Indians as people are ever ready to acquiesce into accepting the authority of anyone who emerges at the top of the heap.

Shrewd Judge

When it came to the question of choosing the Prime Minister of the UPA-I government in 2004, there was vehement opposition to her both as a foreigner and basing her claim just on being the widow of slain Rajiv Gandhi. Sushma Swaraj, the present Foreign Minister in Modi government threatened to shave her head off if Sonia was to head the UPA government. Mrs. Gandhi was also deemed a security risk on account of her links to her brother-in-law Mr. Walter Vinci who served Italian Intelligence. (She had once prevailed on Rajiv Gandhi to send Indian security personnel for training to Italy, under a private organization, for which payment was to be made by the secret funds of RAW. This proposal was shot down by Indian officials. These facts are on record in writings of former Cabinet Secretary Mr. BG Deshmukh as well as by late B. Raman, Additional Director of RAW.)

Above all, Sonia knew her past and her political vulnerability. Hence, the voice of conscience alibi of a devout Catholic to cut a grand deal.

Sonia’s choice of Manmohan was extremely ingenious. He alone among the Congress loyalists was without any political base – he never won an election – and hence was not likely to be a threat. She wanted power and that remained with her without any accountability. Her selection of Manmohan Singh proves her shrewd manipulative skills. Machiavelli couldn’t have had a better disciple.

Dowager Licking Her Wounds

Lastly, today’s Sonia Gandhi wears a pathetic figure – a dowager licking her electoral wounds, shepherding her flock of 44 in a House of 543 and staring blankly at the moment of truth. She is forlorn and helpless as one Brutus after and another digs his dagger. Yesteryears’ courtiers depart one after another. The son she doted on didn’t measure up to her expectations. At any rate Rahul Gandhi was not reared to withstand the rough and tumble of politics nor its chaliced cup. Even he recognized the terrible condition of the party organization when he said in 2013: “I am not afraid to say that the Congress has become moribund. It has scarcely a single leader with a modern mind … Congress has never succeeded in evolving into a modern political party.”

The once almighty party honed by Mahatma Gandhi to win India its freedom, stands marginalized today. It is in desperate need of organizational overhaul as a left-of-center alternative to the BJP, which the power-seeking sycophants don’t let happen. The party dare not debate the crucial issue: must the party leadership be hereditary prerogative of the so-called First Family? Can she fight her way back to power like Indira Gandhi did in 1979-80? Most unlikely till Narendra Modi is around.

Political Epic

All told, Sonia Gandhi’s transition from one incarnation to another – from a waitress in England to the bahu of Indira Gandhi, a partner of Sanjay Gandhi in notorious Maruti swindle, from one who persisted in assiduously dissuading her husband to stay away from politics to a master manipulator of political strings, a perfect master of exercising power without the slightest accountability, and rendered now as helpless spectator of bleak present and bleaker future – is phenomenal indeed. All said and done it’s the plot of a political epic waiting to be crafted.

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Comments on this Article

Comment A wonderfully well-written analysis, Sir. Just imagine, she could rule the country unchallenged despite her party not having a majority and was dependent on other parties including those of the Left for survival. Shame on all of them that they didn't question her ways. Messy marriages of convenience. The pity is that India is going to see many more such marriages now that the Lalu-Nitish-Congress-miscellanea combine has managed to wrest some seats in the recent mid-term State assembly polls. The media is with them. Beware Modi-ji. Please make sure India doesn't have to suffer her machinations again.

08/30/2014 14:03 PM

Comment Sonia would not have 'unduly' had what she had in any country other than India aided by Vajpayee's naivety, if the statement attributed to him after he became P.M were to be true, that "BJP would be in power as long as the Congress is headed by a Catholic Christian". How the 'son of the soil' didn't understand the the total lack of national pride in his fellow sons and daughters of the soil and thus failed to turn the Bofors screw on India's nemesis. History may not forgive the overrated Atal Beahri.

BS Murthy
08/29/2014 14:13 PM

Comment Amazing and readable piece... India politics is so complicated that I just ignore it. but Bali has presented it in such an organized way that I actually read the whole thing!!
But I find "To be continued" rather intimidating--like "To be continued forever..."
Thanks for the attempt!!

Nancy Freeman Patchen
08/26/2014 23:48 PM

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