I was astonished to hear that “The Red Sari” (originally titled, “El Sari Rojo”) by Javier Moro was for sometime banned by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when it was the ruling Government in India. If anything I thought their opponents, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) who are the current ruling dispensation may ban the book for being altogether too flattering about the central figure of the book, Congress President Mrs Sonia Gandhi nee Maino.!! The book was released in English in India in 2015 when it was eagerly awaited as a book known to have been banned makes people want to read it all the more. Whispers about its contents when it was not available in India made the book more mysterious and enticing than it eventually turned out to be. What kind of scandals were in the book that it had to be banned, one wondered? Frankly, there turned out to be none.
Interestingly the book was first published in Spanish in Spain in 2008 as the “dramatized version” of the life of Sonia Gandhi. It starts with how a young Italian girl (originally named Edvige Antonia Albina Maino) met the son of India’s Prime Minister while in England in 1965. They fell in love, got married three years later in India, and began life under the shadows of his mother, Mrs Indira Gandhi. Consequently, as destiny would have it, decades later Sonia Gandhi herself became one of the most powerful persons in the world. In 2007, Forbes named her the third most powerful woman in the world.
The book starts with that first meeting in England and goes on to trace Sonia Maino’s life as a young foreign bride in India in the late 60’s when she was an object of curiosity more than anything else. Everyone wanted to know who this Italian that the elder son of Mrs Indira Gandhi had married was. Moro writes of how deeply Sonia and her husband, Rajiv (who himself became Prime Minister of India shortly after his mother was assassinated in 1984) loved each other. They wanted to live a life away from the glare and scrutiny of politics. Rajiv was quite content to let his younger brother Sanjay don the mantle of being their mother’s political successor while he flew aeroplanes as a pilot in Indian Airlines.
Events changed their lives for ever. First, Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash over New Delhi in 1980 while piloting a small aircraft himself. This compelled Rajiv to enter politics full-time to come to his mother’s aid as there was no one else she trusted. Later when she herself was shot dead by her own bodyguards, the Congress Party deemed it fit that Rajiv should succeed his mother and become the next Prime Minister. From the reluctant politician, four years later Rajiv found himself the Head of Government of the largest democracy in the world.
Seven years later, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brought Sonia into the centre of political activity. She did not play a major role till 1998 when she became the Congress President despite a certain amount of opposition because of her foreign origins. It is said that she remained an Italian citizen till 1983 even though she came to India as a shy young bride in 1968.
The book speaks of the tussle with Maneka Gandhi, the young widow of Sanjay Gandhi after his death, and later the tumultuous events that followed the Indian Army entering the Golden Temple in Amristar. You will remember that this was where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his men who wanted a separate country called “Khalistan” were holed up. We read in the book how both Rajiv and his mother were victims of groups who in a sense they fostered. Mrs Gandhi’s Congress Party largely influenced by Sanjay boosted Bhindranwale in the initial years for their own motives. He however turned out to be their biggest nightmare. Ironically, Mrs Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards who were upset about the storming of the Golden temple. Likewise, Rajiv and other Congress leaders tacitly helped the Sri Lankan Tamils who were fighting against the established Government in Sri Lanka because the support of the Tamil parties in Tamilnadu meant a lot to them. Ironically again, Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber from the LTTE which fought for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.
Sonia learnt all that she came to know about politics by observing her mother-in law who was fond of her. Moro writes of how often Mrs Gandhi preferred Sonia to her younger daughter-in-law, Maneka who eventually (after her husband Sanjay’s death) was thrown out of the PM’s house by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Most of the book covers the Indira-Rajiv era and ends when Sonia Gandhi leads her party to victory in 2004. She could have become the Prime Minister but chose to remain the President of the Congress Party and the top boss of the UPA.
The author himself says he wrote this as it “humanises its subject” though he didn’t get any support whatsoever from the Gandhis in his literary endeavor. He had hoped that they would be more considerate to him as his uncle, the well-known writer Dominique Lapierre, ( who wrote ‘Freedom At Midnight’) was known to Mrs. Indira Gandhi. For the record, it must be mentioned that Sonia Gandhi never granted Moro any interview and all that he wrote was based on his research, interviews with people who knew the Gandhis and a host of already published material.
I enjoyed the book as it gave new insights to the Gandhis, the powerful people who have ruled the lives of millions of my countrymen for several decades. It speaks of how one family meant so much to India’s largest political party that Congressmen, young and old alike, could not see themselves being led by any other.