Sonia Gandhi is an Italian-born Indian politician, who has served as President of the Indian National Congress party since 1998. She is the widow of former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi who belonged to the Nehru Gandhi family. After her husband's assassination in 1991, she was invited by Congress leaders to take over the government but she refused and publicly stayed away from politics amidst constant prodding from the party. She finally agreed to join politics in 1997; in 1998, she was elected President of the Congress party.
She has served as the Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha since 2004. In September 2010, on being re-elected for the fourth time, she became the longest serving president in the 125-year history of the Congress party. Her foreign birth has been a subject of much debate and controversy. Also controversial was her alleged friendship with Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, accused of being a middleman in the Bofors scandal. Although Sonia is the fifth foreign-born person to be leader of the Congress Party, she is the first since independence in 1947
She was born to Stefano and Paola Maino in Contrada Maini, at Lusiana, a little village 30 km from Vicenza in Veneto, Italy, where families with the family name "Maino" have been living for many generations. She spent her adolescence in Orbassano, a town near Turin, being raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family and attending a Catholic school. Her father, Stefano Maino, was a building mason, who owned a small construction business in Orbassano. Stefano fought against the Soviet military alongside Hitler's Wehrmacht on the eastern front in World War II, he called himself a loyal supporter of Benito Mussolini and Italy's National Fascist Party. He died in 1983. Her mother and two sisters still live around Orbassano.
In 1964, she went to study English at the Bell Educational Trust's language school in the city of Cambridge. In 1965 at a Greek restaurant (the Varsity Restaurant in Cambridge) she met Rajiv Gandhi, who was enrolled in Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi married in 1968, in a Hindu ceremony following which she moved into the house of her mother-in-law and then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
The couple had two children, Rahul Gandhi (born 1970) and Priyanka Vadra (born 1972). Despite belonging to the influential Nehru family, Sonia and Rajiv avoided all involvement in politics. Rajiv worked as an airline pilot while Sonia took care of her family. When Indira Gandhi was ousted from office in 1977 in the aftermath of the Indian Emergency, the Rajiv family contemplated to move abroad for a short time. When Rajiv entered politics in 1982 after the death of his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash on 23 June 1980, Sonia continued to focus on her family and avoided all contact with the public.
Sonia Gandhi's involvement with Indian public life began after the assassination of her mother-in-law and her husband's election as Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister's wife she acted as his official hostess and also accompanied him on a number of state visits. In 1984, she actively campaigned against her husband's sister-in-law Maneka Gandhi who was running against Rajiv in Amethi. At the end of Rajiv Gandhi's five years in office, the Bofors scandal broke out. Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian business man believed to be involved, was said to be a friend of Sonia Gandhi, having access to the Prime Minister's official residence. The BJP has alleged that she appeared on the voters list in New Delhi prior to obtaining Indian citizenship in April 1983, in contravention of Indian law.
Former senior Congress leader and the currently the President of India Pranab Mukherjee said that she surrendered her Italian passport to the Italian Embassy on 27 April 1983. Italian nationality law did not permit dual nationality until 1992. So, by acquiring Indian citizenship in 1983, she would automatically have lost Italian citizenship.
After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and her refusal to become Prime Minister, the party settled on the choice of P. V. Narasimha Rao who became leader and subsequently Prime Minister. Over the next few years, however, the Congress fortunes continued to dwindle and it lost the 1996 elections. Several senior leaders such as Madhavrao Sindhia, Rajesh Pilot, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Arjun Singh, Mamata Banerjee, G. K. Moopanar, P. Chidambaram and Jayanthi Natarajan were in open revolt against incumbent President Sitaram Kesri and many of whom quit the party, splitting the Congress into many factions.
In an effort to revive the party's sagging fortunes, she joined the Congress Party as a primary member in the Calcutta Plenary Session in 1997 and became party leader in 1998.
In May 1999, three senior leaders of the party (Sharad Pawar, P. A. Sangma, and Tariq Anwar) challenged her right to try to become India's Prime Minister because of her foreign origins. In response, she offered to resign as party leader, resulting in an outpouring of support and the expulsion from the party of the three rebels who went on to form the Nationalist Congress Party.
Within 62 days of joining as a primary member, she was offered the party President post which she accepted. She contested Lok Sabha elections from Bellary, Karnataka and Amethi, Uttar Pradesh in 1999. She won both seats but chose to represent Amethi. In Bellary, she had defeated veteran BJP leader, Sushma Swaraj.