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India: The steamy side of Sonia Gandhi?

A hot-and-heavy book has political India in an uproar.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi winces. Gandhi, chief of India's Congress Party, reacts at a press conference in New Delhi on May 16, 2009. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

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.