India: The steamy side of Sonia Gandhi?

BANGALORE, India — "Sonia Gandhi simply cannot believe that the man she loves is dead and she will no longer feel his caresses or the warmth of his kisses. She will never again see that sweet smile that one day swept her off her feet …"

The lady in question is not the heroine of a pulp fiction novel, though this passage reads like one. In the real world, Sonia Gandhi is India’s most powerful politician, the dour-faced, unsmiling chief of the ruling Congress Party.

But in recent weeks, Gandhi, 63, has found herself in the eye of a storm over "El Sari Rojo" ("The Red Sari"), a book that calls itself the saga of India’s first family of politics — the Nehru-Gandhis — as dramatized through her eyes. The book first published in 2008 has been a bestseller in Spanish, French, Dutch and several other languages.

Now an English version of the book to be produced by an Indian publisher has run into all kinds of trouble. Gandhi’s lawyers have demanded a ban on the book saying it contains, “untruths, half-truths, falsehoods and defamatory statements." In Mumbai, a group of protesters burned copies of the book, downloaded and printed off the internet.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a spokesperson for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said the censoring was against the principles of free speech and a repeat of the Congress’ dictatorial ways in the past.

The Spanish author of the book Javier Moro says the book is a fictional, flattering story, an explanation that the Congress Party’s spokesperson and lawyer Abhishek Singhi promptly rejected saying a fictionalized biography about a living person is an "oxymoron."

The Congress Party’s reverential manner toward its leader Sonia Gandhi is palpable. “Brand Sonia is the party’s biggest proprietary asset and so the sensitivity and touchiness about anything that ruffles the sentiment,” said Harish Bijoor, a Bangalore-based brand and image consultant.

The enigmatic Italian-born Gandhi was rudely thrust into politics following the horrific assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi, when he was India’s prime minister more than two decades ago. She dominates the political landscape and is widely considered the power broker who backed fellow party leader Manmohan Singh as the country’s prime minister twice over.

Gandhi herself decided to stay in the shadows and political speculators believe she is biding her time while grooming her son, Rahul, to be the future prime minister. That would sit well with the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. Sonia Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv, and his mother, Indira, were prime ministers, and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was independent India’s first prime minister.

Thus Moro’s website describes the book, “the adventure of a woman, the saga of a family, the epic story of a nation." He accuses Gandhi’s lawyers of trying to "terrorize" his Indian publishers and says he will counter-sue.

The threat of bans and lawsuits is reflective of the variable tolerance meter of India’s leading Congress Party.

At one level the party espouses religious and cultural liberalism. At another, it will simply not allow any kind of portrayal of its supreme leader Sonia Gandhi in any form — book, film or cartoon. The ultra-protectiveness is seen by some as the result of the extreme sycophancy that rules at every level.

The inadvertent fallout of all this fuss is that India is agog over the release of a book whose author was an unknown until now.

Within India, the Congress Party’s tacticians work in unseen ways. In the just-released Bollywood film called "Rajneeti" (politics) by the noted Prakash Jha, one prominent role is that of a sari-clad lady politician. Bollywood rumor mills now abound with stories about how Jha was forced to chop bits of the movie showing the lady politician after the character was said to resemble Sonia Gandhi.

Jha has denied that the role was modeled on any real person, and also denied that he had made any cuts. An ambitious previous film project based on Sonia Gandhi’s life, which had roped in the well-known Italian actress Monica Bellucci to play the lead role, was mysteriously shelved.

The Congress Party is prickly about several portions of Moro’s book such as his report that Hindu priests did not allow Sonia to be present at her husband’s funeral, and his suggestion that the widowed Gandhi had looked to return to Italy with her two children after her husband’s death.

Meanwhile, "The Red Sari" (named after Gandhi’s traditional Indian wedding attire), is awaiting publication. The New Delhi-based Roli Books says it is negotiating with both the author and Gandhi’s lawyers to speed up the India launch.

“The author is willing to make suitable changes and we are hoping that will clear the way,” said Priya Kapoor, a director of Roli Books.

The hurry is understandable. Whoever the publisher, the book looks like it will be a financial winner all the way.