After unexpectedly leading India's Congress Party to power in 2004, Sonia Gandhi listened to her "inner voice" and perhaps the voices of those vehemently opposed to an Italian-born Catholic running the country and chose to play kingmaker, handing the job of Prime Minister to economist Manmohan Singh, instead of taking the role herself. It was a deft move: in the intervening years Sonia's popularity has soared and she continues to wield considerable influence behind the scenes. Millions of ordinary Indians love her: despite the fact she's not Indian and married into a famous and powerful family (her late husband, Rajiv, and mother-in-law Indira were both Prime Ministers) they see her as one of their own. Populist gestures help. When the government contemplated opening up India's retail industry to foreign competition earlier this year, which many believed would endanger the livelihoods of millions of small shopowners, Gandhi wrote to the Prime Minister asking him "to consider having the relevant issues properly examined before further decisions are taken." While foreign retailers like Wal-Mart plan wholesale operations, the bar on selling directly to India's public remains. Gandhi has also helped choreograph the entry of her children Rahul and Priyanka into political life. Perhaps they will one day take on the role she turned down.
By Simon Robinson
Next Manmohan Singh