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Sonia & Maneka:
The warring sisters-in-law

The two are as different from each other as chalk and cheese, yet pursuing the same game - politics; both carry the similar Gandhi tag, yet are perfect antithesis to each other.

I t is touted as the world's largest democracy, but when it comes to the Nehru-Gandhi clan India bears an uncanny resemblance to monarchy - three generations having adorned the helm, the fourth purportedly waiting in the wings.

India's first family, as it has been labeled, has seen it all - three prime ministers, two assassinations and, for decades, a country looking up to them for succour. But when Death snatched away the scepter from the family - Sanjay Gandhi killed in a mysterious plane crash, Indira Gandhi sprayed with bullets by her own security guards, and Rajiv Gandhi blown up by terrorists - it left behind familial mystery, political intrigue, strife and, more importantly, two widows.

The widows as different from each other as chalk and cheese, yet pursuing the same game - politics; Sonia as president of the Congress party, now in opposition, and Maneka as a member of the BJP-led union cabinet. Both carry the similar Gandhi tag, yet are perfect antithesis to each other.

Perhaps their beginnings were antipodal too - the Italian-born dark-haired Sonia Maino travelled from Italy to Cambridge to learn advanced English and fell in love with the reticent elder son of Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India; skittish Maneka Anand, still a teenager, donned a towel for a modelling assignment and caught the eye of the younger and more ambitious son of the same prime minister.

Both joined the Gandhi household as daughters-in-law, Sonia as Rajiv Gandhi's wife in February, 1968; Maneka six years later as Sanjay Gandhi's-betrothed.

Sonia's tryst with India began, as if, in a haze, "with its snakes, elephants and jungles but exactly where it was and what it was really all about, I am not sure". Once in the Gandhi household, she took to being the typical Indian daughter-in-law, wearing sarees, taking care of the home, learning cooking, picking up Hindi and even calling her mother-in-law 'mummy'.

Maneka, on the other hand, was a more difficult inhabitant of the house. If Sonia found it frightening to live in a family that was always in the public eye, Maneka could not adjust to the non-smoking, non-drinking Gandhi clan. The energetic daughter of a colonel loved the limelight, knew none of the household chores and "did not want to learn cooking".

The sobriety of 1, Safdarjung Road, the official residence of the prime minister in New Delhi, suffocated her; Sonia's stoic and compliant nature added to her dolor. Maneka flapped her wings in public, Sonia preened her plumes in private.

The famed mother-in-law seemed to be clear about her preferences, Sonia was always the favoured one, Maneka forever the nudnik,

Indira Gandhi once wrote to Dorothy Norman, her long-time friend. "Apart from being beautiful, Sonia is a really nice girl, wholesome and straightforward". On the other hand, Maneka's fiery temperament and political leanings evoked anger and resentment in Mrs Gandhi, known for her imperious aloofness. Their hatred for each other did not go unnoticed. The media lapped up every twist in the dynasty's soap opera. Marie Seton wrote in The Sunday Times, "Maneka has done more damage to Indira than anyone else - that awful woman got under her skin".

1, Safdarjung Road became divided into two warring factions - the reclusive Sonia and Rajiv, the unassuming airline pilot, took to tending their children and living away from the glare of publicity. Sanjay and Maneka's corner, it was said, was always replete with sycophants and bootlickers. Life rolled on the way they wanted - Sonia content as a wife and mother; Maneka as the cynosure of all eyes and as the blistering wife of the ambitious heir-apparent. Till a flying stunt snuffed life out of Sanjay Gandhi.

It was then that the real battle began, the battle for supremacy over the household - and the country that was like a fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Maneka, the teenaged wife, developed into molted one, manipulating her steps and planning for the future.

She hated being cold-shouldered, knew her position in the household was precarious and started flexing her muscles. She was too keen to assume the mantle of Sanjay Gandhi and, much to the chagrin of Mrs Gandhi, turned overtly political and even established hegemony over her husband's memorabilia. Maneka did all she could to stay in the public eye; and Sonia, to stay away from it.

Though Sonia distanced herself from politics she would not let the control of the Gandhi household slip out of her hands. When Mrs Gandhi wanted to make Maneka her political secretary, Sonia put her foot down. With Sanjay gone and Maneka having shed all inhibitions, the first family was to witness a scandalous drama - Indira Gandhi threw her younger daughter-in-law out of the house! Maneka was just 24 then. The baton of political legacy was passed over to Rajiv Gandhi.

The 'wronged' Maneka whipped mass sympathy during election campaigns but it did nothing to her political career. She won a parliamentary seat but a member of the first family does not stop short of the prime minister's chair; Maneka would not either. The stoic Sonia stayed with her mother-in-law, maintained a comfortable distance from politics and her sister-in-law. But fate willed otherwise.

Hours after Indira Gandhi's assassination in October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi -by default more than by design - became the prime minister of India. For Sonia it was Doomsday. She was pushed into the public gaze and how much she hated it!

In a book published after Rajiv's death, she wrote; "For the first time, there was tension between Rajiv and me, I fought like a tigress - for him. for us and our children, above all, for our freedom". But the gaze followed her almost everywhere she went and settled on her when Rajiv was blown up by a suicide bomber in 1991 when he was campaigning in South India for the election.

Questions on whether she would take an active role in Indian politics began almost immediately after the assassination of Rajiv, with suggestions that she should stand for prime minister. Fiercely private, Sonia had so far kept herself and her children at a distance from active politics and stayed like that after Rajiv's death, only occasionally breaking her silence.

"I just don't like being in the limelight," she once said. "It's just my habit." Indian newspapers dubbed her an enigma and described her as "sphinx-like". But she kept the legacy alive by remaining in touch with the senior political leaders, inviting them over for tea.

After years of resisting politics, which had snatched away all that she loved, Sonia Gandhi was formally endorsed as the new leader of the main opposition Congress Party last year, the fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to do so.

The differences between the two Gandhi daughters-in-law are still palpable - Sonia is generally seen in shades of beige, Maneka in more flamboyant colours; while Sonia is known for her monosyllables and stoicism, Maneka is prone to angry outbursts and stormy behaviour. Even their memories have acquired different shades - with conscious symbolism, Maneka's pictorial biography of Sanjay had been bound in black, Sonia's of Rajiv in white.

The beginning was antithetical for the Gandhi daughters-in-law, the future could be one so.

Decades later, history might remember the awfully ambitious Maneka as an environment-activist and animal-lover. The reclusive Sonia's name might have a tinge of gilt - the daughter of an Italian builder who became the prime minister of India. Or, as someone just too shy of it.

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