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August 31, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Sonia in camera

Some time back, Star Plus telecast an interview that I did with Sonia Gandhi. Because this was her first full length interview for any medium, it received a vast amount of attention --mentions on television news, references in the foreign media, agency releases and huge stories in national newspapers.

Even before the interview was telecast, I began receiving calls from people who had seen clips in the news or read about it in the newspapers. All of them asked variations of the same questions: what was it like interviewing somebody who was so enigmatic, so aloof, so unreachable?

I still don't have a simple answer -- perhaps because it is the wrong question. The interview was scheduled for noon. At 10 am, nearly 20 people from Star Plus turned up at 10, Janpath and turned her study upside down. They installed three cameras, six lights and assorted reflectors. Furniture was shifted around, carpets were rolled aside and the floor was littered with yards of electrical wiring.

Most people get annoyed when TV crews turn up at their homes and start re-arranging the furniture. I know that I now refuse to let cameramen into the house and insist that they come to the office if any channel wishes to interview me. So, it was with some trepidation that I observed the havoc my crew was wreaking on 10, Janpath. How, I wondered, would Sonia react?

My first surprise came when she and the children (both Priyanka and Rahul sat through the interview) regarded the damage with equanimity. Far from being annoyed, they were warm and hospitable to the crew, liberally offering food and drink and cheerfully posing for pictures with all those who asked for them.

The traditional image of Sonia is of an imperious woman into whose presence you are admitted for a brief and tense audience. "She never even offered me a glass of water," is a common complaint from disgruntled Congressmen. But the Sonia we saw that Tuesday was nothing like the Sonia we had heard about.

The second surprise was the manner in which she behaved during the interview. She was clearly nervous in front of the camera and so I suggested that we do a dummy take. That is, the cameras would not roll but I would pretend that we were on the air, do my piece to camera, turn to her and ask a question. Her job was to answer this dummy question just so that she could get a feel of what the interview would be like.

That, at least, was the theory. In practice, it went very differently. I managed to do the piece to camera and to ask the first question but instead of answering, Sonia had a bad attack of the giggles. "It is Rahul and Priyanka," she said, "they are making me self-conscious." I made them move to a part of the room from where she could not see them. Then, we tried again. Same problem. Another attack of the giggles.

Finally, I said, "We'll just do one more dummy. I am sorry if you giggle Mrs Gandhi but we'll have to start after that." She nodded glumly. I assumed my serious anchor-person expression and spoke to the camera, "My guest today is perhaps India's most important woman. But she is also one of the most enigmatic..." Complete collapse. Now I had a bad case of the giggles.

After a five minute break, many glasses of water and horrified looks from the camera persons, I decided that we would start anyway. The dummy run was clearly not working. What Sonia did not know was that though my dummy questions were all suitably innocuous (sample: "How do you assess the response you are getting at your rallies?"), the real first question was much harder.

When the cameras rolled and both of us were suitably straight faced, I went into the attack, "Sonia Gandhi," I said, "three opinion polls put you far behind the BJP. How does it feel to lose this election?"

It was, by any standards, a rude question. Given the circumstances (that it was her first interview) and the bonhomie engendered by the giggling, it was also a slightly nasty thing to do.

To her credit, Sonia Gandhi was unflustered. She did not badmouth the pollsters or go on the defensive. Instead, she made the irrefutable point that the polls had all got Madhya Pradesh wrong last year. (The polls said the Congress would lose but it won by a landslide.) So, she said, she did not go by opinion polls.

That question -- and her response to it -- set the tone for the interview. No matter what I asked her, she responded with Rajiv Gandhi-like candour. Was she aware that people made fun of her accent? She laughed. Yes she was. But what could she do? That was her accent. Did she know that people regarded her as arrogant and aloof? Yes she did, or so she had been told. Come, come, I said, I can hardly believe that anyone has the guts to come and tell you that you are arrogant! She laughed and explained that she was shy and took a long time to relax with people.

We talked about the famous misstatement on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Why had she said, "I have today told the president that I have the support of 272 MPs", when it clearly wasn't true? The traditional Congress answer is to point out that she didn't actually say that. What she said in response to a journalist's question about whether the Bharatiya Janata Party should be recalled was "they have 269 and we have 272," a reference to the way the voting went in the confidence motion. To Sonia's credit, she did not turn pedantic. Of course she knew that she did not have 272, she said. She had only meant that this was the number of members of parliament opposed to the BJP. But she knew that it hadn't come out that way and she regretted it.

We discussed the nationality question. I was deliberately provocative. An Indian could never be prime minister of Italy. Why should we accept an Italian in Indian politics? She shrugged. She understood, she said, why people felt that way. But she didn't feel at all Italian. She felt Indian. This was her home and she loved it here. I was still sceptical. What would happen if the Congress lost the election as now seemed likely? Would she give up politics and go back to Torino or wherever it was that she had come from? I saw my cameraman giving anxious looks but Sonia was unperturbed and unoffended. No, she said, she was in politics for the long term and India was her home. Nothing seemed to anger her. She was agitated only when I accused her of conspiring with J Jayalalitha to bring the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government down. Vajpayee lost the support of his allies, she said, what did this have to do with her? Well, I reported, she voted against his government. We are the Opposition, she responded. We are not here to hold his hand.

There were emotional moments, some of which did not make it into the final 24 minute edit that went out on television. I told her that most people of my generation regarded Indira Gandhi as a duplicitous, devious, conniving old woman. She disagreed. She knew her as a family person she said -- she was more like a mother than a mother in law--and therefore saw a completely different side of her. Indira Gandhi's problem, she said, was that she was extremely shy. There would be times when they were all sitting with a visitor and Indira Gandhi would suddenly dry up and there would be long painful silences which were excruciating for everyone but that Mrs Gandhi never knew how to break the silence.

The real revelation (which did make it to television) was that Indira Gandhi knew, right after Blue Star, that she was going to be assassinated. She spoke to her grandchildren and prepared them for her death and gave detailed instructions to Rajiv and Sonia about the disposal of her affairs and even the arrangements for her funeral.

I tried to get her to talk about Rajiv's death and though she tried, it proved too difficult. She talked about seeing Rajiv just before he left for Sriperumbudur, his body aching and swollen; about trying to go with him only to be told that he was using a very small aircraft which had no extra seats, about being informed by Priyanka that Rajiv had been assassinated; and about thinking, "I should have gone with him." At this stage, her eyes welled with tears and her voice began to crack. She was willing to go on but I took a commercial break.

What does all this prove? That Sonia Gandhi is a great politician? That she should be prime minister of India? And so on?

No, of course not. I make no claims for Sonia's political acumen -- in fact, any unbiased person watching the interview may well conclude that contrary to what the press writes, she has less in common with her Machiavellian mother in law than she does with her essentially straightforward husband. My producer, who is not a Congress voter by any stretch of the imagination, came away with the feeling that the whole atmosphere in the house was almost endearingly naïve -- Sonia and her children, she felt, seemed too innocent to cope with Congress politics.

Nor do I seek -- in the manner of a peasant who meets a queen for the first time and is delighted to find that she is also a human being -- to argue that everyone who has known Sonia over the years is wrong about her. I am sure different people have different perspectives.

But having said all that, I have to say that if my image of Sonia had only been shaped by what I read in the papers and by the kinds of things Sharad Pawar and Arun Nehru say, then I would not have recognised the person I interviewed. She may not be a street-smart politician and yes, she has made many miscalculations over the last few months.

But she has Rajiv Gandhi's strongest quality: on a one-to-one level, she's almost impossible to dislike. What a shame then, that she locked herself away from the media for so long? Had she opened up earlier, then the Congress would be doing much better today.

Vir Sanghvi

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