In 1994, Sonia Gandhi published a book of photographs from her private life with her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi. It included a dozen pictures from their trips to Italy, where she had grown up in the suburbs of Turin. Here she was in a speedboat in 1980, wearing crimson-framed sunglasses and a matched paisley shawl. Here was their son Rahul, just seven or eight years old, on a beach pushing goggles off his face into his hair.
What made the book, titled Rajiv’s World, so unusual then was the photographer: Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India killed in a suicide bombing. What makes the book unusual today is how much it shares of the interior life of Sonia herself—before she transcended her origins to become India’s most powerful politician.
This week, Sonia Gandhi retired as president of the Indian National Congress, a position she had held since 1998, longer than anyone before her. She is succeeded by her son, Rahul Gandhi, the sixth of his line to lead the party. If he one day becomes prime minister, Rahul will be the fourth Nehru-Gandhi to do so—India has had one from every generation since its independence.
Rahul Gandhi’s patrimony reaches him thanks only to his mother’s intervention. When she was 22, Sonia left her home in Piedmont, Italy, to marry into India’s most exalted political family. But a series of violent deaths in the 1980s left her its sole adult survivor, casting her in the role of tragic widow and reluctant champion of India’s secular heritage. She led the Congress party out of its doldrums to victory in two successive national elections, in 2004 and 2009. To many, her supremacy in Indian politics was bitter proof of a national weakness for dynastic rule. But she also re-committed the Congress to its founding, pluralist values, resisting the trend of religious populism that has gained ground in recent decades.