India's Italian Connection

04/03/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

So they are back. Two Italian marines, who fled to Italy evading trial in India, have been forced to return after the intervention of India's paramount leader, Sonia Gandhi.

Try as she might, Gandhi cannot shed her Italian connection. Born and raised there, she moved to India in her early twenties after marrying into the Gandhi family. Assimilation was steady, if unsure. Her apolitical husband, Rajiv, freely consorted with her Italian friends and family. Rajiv's unexpected entry into politics in the early 1980s prompted her to become an Indian citizen.

Rajiv became prime minister in 1984, but Italians still inhabited his inner circle. One such, Ottavio Quattrocchi, is believed to have received kickbacks in a big arms deal, tainting Rajiv and bringing down his government.

Rajiv was assassinated in 1991, whereupon many well-wishers pleaded with Sonia to return to Italy for her and her two children's sake. She refused, maintaining that her future lay in India, and focused on bringing up her children for the next few years.

By the late 1990s, Rajiv's party, the Congress, was withering away. In desperation, it turned to Sonia. Realizing that only a Gandhi at its helm could arrest the implosion, she took charge. The party's joy knew no bounds.

Her detractors failed to grasp how canny she was, and how cannily she understood India. In retrospect, it should not be so hard to see why. No European country shares as much with India as Italy: family bonding, corruption, tardiness, exquisite cuisine. Sonia had imbibed the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics from her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. She saw her husband make mistakes, and picked up what not to do. She learned Hindi to become locally palatable.

Her political opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party party, repeatedly questioned her foreign origins. They even wanted to change India's constitution, which allowed a foreign-born a shot at the prime ministership. But their own prime minister, A.B. Vajpayee, a sagacious old man, restrained his colleagues.

Sonia's shyness was crippling, and painfully obvious, but she turned the handicap into an advantage, rarely speaking out and keeping the media at an arm's length. In a country of pompous politicians, silence proved golden. When she did speak, she seldom forgot to remind people about the assassinations of her mother-in-law and husband, stoking the guilt many Indians already felt.

Almost everyone, including Sonia herself, was stunned when she dethroned the popular Vajpayee in 2004. The moment of truth had arrived. Would she lay claim to the prime ministership? Her party was keen, but opposition mounted within India. How could a white person rule a country that had not so long ago overthrown white rule?

Appreciating that her foreignness would cripple any government led by her, she decided to rule by proxy by installing the self-effacing Manmohan Singh. India had its regent, while she kept the keys to power. India had rarely witnessed such an arrangement, where the PM was not the unquestioned leader of the country. A country enamored of the Gandhis grudgingly accepted the liberties taken.

A government hobbled thus was expected to tumble like a house of cards. Instead it has survived for nine long years. India's odd couple, Sonia and Singh, may differ in private, but are sure to project a united face in public. This is not difficult, because Singh always defers to Sonia, and keeps even more mum than her.

Sonia remains fiercely loyal to her husband's memory. Her party has a legacy of 150 years, but its website has been converted into a personal homage to him. Those on his right side are on hers; fie on anyone who had crossed him. In keeping with this dictum, Quattrocchi, was allegedly let off by Indian authorities.

Otherwise Sonia has been meticulous in keeping her distance from Italy. She goes there only to visit her family. She refuses to speak Italian in public. A Catholic, she has downplayed her faith to meld into an overwhelmingly-Hindu country.

Italy had receded into the shadows until, suddenly, the Italian government declared that Indians had received bribes in an arms deal. Mention was made of a family benefiting from the kickbacks, which made the opposition pounce on Sonia. The ghost that had haunted her husband was back. A hypersensitive Sonia made the Indian government respond with alacrity.

Just as things were calming down, Rome took center stage again. Two Italian marines had killed a couple of Indian fishermen off India's coastline. India believes that they were killed in Indian waters; the Italians insist that they were acting in international waters against what they assumed were pirates.

The marines were apprehended by India, and the case against them proceeded slowly. They were allowed to return to Italy on compassionate grounds, whereupon they refused to come back. All hell broke loose in India. Singh tried to downplay the issue, but Sonia understood the gravity of the matter. Elections were approaching, and her opponents would have a new Italian card to flaunt against her. She compelled Singh to force the Italians to return.

When it comes to Italy, Sonia has to be not just like Caesar's wife, but also disavow his and her own native land. To keep the wolves at bay, a delicate dance she must play.