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“ How a waitress became a world leader “ and Some truth from our side



May 17, 2004

How a waitress became a world leader





By Glen Owen and Nick Meo

SONIA GANDHI, the daughter of an Italian housebuilder, is likely to become’s India’s new Prime Minister this week — the culmination of a political career that had its beginnings in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge.

Mrs Gandhi was an 18-year-old student at a small language college in Cambridge in 1965, making ends meet by working as a waitress in the Varsity restaurant, when she met a handsome young engineering student.

That first encounter with the future Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, has remained imprinted on her mind as the most romantic moment of her life.

“As our eyes met for the first time, I could feel my heart pounding . . . as far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight,” she wrote later in a rare moment of self-revelation.

“I had a vague idea that India existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants and jungles, but exactly where it was and what it was really all about, I was not sure.”

The man she had met in Cambridge belonged to India’s greatest political dynasty — the son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Nehru. She, on the other hand, was Sonia Maino, the daughter of a modest Roman Catholic family from Orbassano, near Turin.

But as well as being the source of happy memories, her time in Cambridge has in recent weeks created some political difficulties for Mrs Gandhi.

Her entry in the Indian parliamentary Who’s Who contains the false claim that she was a Cambridge University scholar. The mistake has been repeated frequently in the media. George Fernandes, the former Indian Defence Minister and an arch-opponent, has accused Mrs Gandhi of allowing the confusion to arise.

“Cambridge does not have a diploma course in English,” Mr Fernandes said. He added that the incorrect biography showed that Mrs Gandhi was “a woman who lies about even small things”.

Cambridge has confirmed that it has no record of her attending the university.

The row has echoes of Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced Conservative peer who was slow to correct people who believed that he had gone to the historic Wellington College, Berkshire, rather than the minor independent school with the same name near Taunton, Somerset.

Mrs Gandhi’s supporters dismiss the controversy. They say that the entry in the book was either an editorial error or just a “thoughtless mistake”.

They prefer to emphasise that, unlike most Indian politicians, Mrs Gandi has a “clean reputation” and say that she is being singled out for vitriol because of her foreign origins, Catholic religion and gender.

In 1965 Mrs Gandhi was briefly a student at the Bell School of Languages. It is understood that she studied for the Cambridge diploma, a now defunct six-week course in English literature and language for overseas students.

The young Miss Maino took work babysitting and as a waitress at the Greek restaurant — “the only place in Cambridge that you could have something close to home food” — and found life in the university city quite different from small-town Piedmont.

She was eating at the restaurant one evening when Gandhi — whose place at Trinity College had been achieved through family connections with the Master, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden — slipped into the chair beside her. She later told her family: “I’ve fallen in love with an Indian. He is a sportsman. He’s the blue prince I always dreamt of.”

There were difficulties from both families but three years after they met, Sonia and Rajiv married.

Politics was not meant to be their life — Gandhi was an airline pilot — but everything changed when his mother was murdered and his brother, Sanjay, died in an air crash.

Mrs Gandhi, who had become an Indian citizen in 1983, pleaded with her husband not to enter the dangerous maelstrom of Indian political life. But the weight of the Gandhi family history and sense of responsibility compelled him to take the reins of the Congress party in 1984. He was Prime Minister until 1989.

When Rajiv was killed by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber 13 years ago Sonia retreated into a life of privacy and seclusion.

Coaxed out of her reclusive lifestyle to save the Congress movement, Mrs Gandhi, 57, now finds herself on the brink of power. She will become the fourth Gandhi to hold power in India and the first European to rule since Lord Mountbatten of Burma.

It has been a long journey from the days when she was a carefree teenager who once shocked India by wearing a miniskirt. Today she regards herself as “completely Indian”.


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