Cablegate: A Garrulous Sonia Gandhi Opens Up to Maria Shriver
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Friday, 04 August 2006, 13:17
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 NEW DELHI 005495
STATE FOR INR/B
EO 12958 DECL: 08/04/2016
TAGS PGOV, PREL, PINR, PHUM, SCUL, KWMN, PINS, IN
SUBJECT: A GARRULOUS SONIA GANDHI OPENS UP TO MARIA SHRIVER
Classified By: Charge Geoff Pyatt for reasons 1.4 (B,D)
1. (C) Summary: In a relaxed August 3 conversation with California first lady Maria Shriver, Sonia Gandhi revealed a rare glimpse of herself. Usually withdrawn and reserved in public, she spoke at great length and radiated confidence on women’s’ issues and some aspects of her private life. Mrs. Gandhi demonstrated a strong commitment to a progressive left-of-center agenda aimed at combating socially conservative forces bent on oppressing Indian women. However, she was also realistic, revealing an in-depth knowledge of Indian culture, especially the rural/urban divide. At times suppressing her emotions, she spoke about the compulsions of political life, her parents’ objections to her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi and the sacrifices she and her family have made. Her comments and demeanor put the lie to cocktail party suggestions that she courts Manmohan Singh’s job. End Summary.
Two Dynasties Meet
2. (C) Maria Shriver, California’s first lady and wife of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, met with Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi on August 3 as part of her official visit to India. Shriver is in India to discuss her various initiatives on women’s’ affairs and to solicit Indian involvement. She is also laying the groundwork for a proposed trade mission led by Governor Schwarzenegger around February, 2007. After her stay in Delhi, she will go to Dharamshalla to meet the Dalai Lama. In addition to the Gandhi meeting, Shriver met with the head of the National Commission for Women and toured NGO’s involved in women’s’ affairs. Mrs. Gandhi was accompanied by former Cabinet Minister Karan Singh.
Indian Women Bear a Heavy Burden
3. (C) Shriver and Gandhi engaged in an over one hour exchange that was lively and open and covered many issues, both personal and political. Shriver explained that she was concerned with women’s issues, including sexual abuse and exploitation and trafficking. Mrs. Gandhi replied that the situation for women in India is more troubling and traumatic than that in the US and other developed countries, as Indian women must deal with myriad problems not found in the west, such as child labor. In addition, most Indian women live in remote villages with severe “cultural compulsions” that work against women, making it difficult for the GOI to enforce the law. She pointed out that Indian women remain largely uneducated which is a “big problem” for Indian society and makes progress difficult. This compels the GOI to rely on television and radio to reach women with messages aimed at their concerns. Mrs. Gandhi noted that while she had a deep personal interest in women’s’ issues, she “only rarely” gave personal interviews aimed at female audiences.
And Sonia Bears a Personal Burden
4. (C) Without prompting and at her own initiative Mrs. Gandhi then spoke at length about her personal life. She revealed that after her mother in law’s murder Rajiv Gandhi was under intense pressure to take up the political mantle of the Gandhi family, but both Rajiv and Sonia were intensely
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personal and had no interest in politics. According to Mrs. Gandhi, she urged her husband repeatedly to avoid politics, but he insisted. After Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, Sonia was determined to avoid the limelight and “kept in the background.” She clarified that she accompanied her husband to official events, but refrained from making political statements. After her husband’s assassination, Mrs. Gandhi withdrew, working only on a charitable foundation established in Rajiv’s memory. In a candid revelation of her personal political stance, Mrs. Gandhi stated that “the right was becoming strong in India and Congress weak,” tipping her hand and “compelling” her to enter politics to protect the Gandhi family legacy. She also revealed that her children were “not keen” about the idea, but eventually told her, “whatever you decide, we will back you.”
Turning Down the PM Spot
5. (C) Mrs. Gandhi was reluctant to provide details regarding her decision to turn down the Prime Minister post after the UPA’s surprise 2004 electoral victory, stating that “I am often asked about this, but tell people that I will write a book someday with the whole story.” She would only say that she “felt better” that someone else became PM and “did not regret” her decision. Shriver congratulated Mrs. Gandhi for her resoluteness and described her as “courageous.” Clearly embarrassed by this adulation, Mrs. Gandhi made no response. She elaborated, at Karan Singh’s insistence, saying that she was under lots of pressure, as the “party workers” were “very upset.” They “could not understand” why she, as party President, was not taking up the post, since they had voted for her and won a majority.
Politics and Women
6. (C) Shriver noted that she chairs a “Women’s Conference” that brings 11,000 women to California to discuss relevant issues, and reinforced the point that “women can change the world.” Shriver invited Mrs. Gandhi to attend next year. She pointed out that last year’s keynote speaker was Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke about balancing public and private life, and how she left the Supreme Court to look after her ailing husband and spend more time with her children. Shriver emphasized that Justice O’Connor also did not want to enter public life but was “pushed by her husband,” and noted how difficult it is to be a wife and mother and play a public role. Mrs. Gandhi made no commitment to attend.
Indian Steps to Bring Justice
7. (C) Mrs. Gandhi explained the steps that her UPA government had taken and planned to take to help women achieve greater social mobility and rights. She explained that the GOI had instituted a “Panchayati Raj” program under which major decisions regarding the economic development of villages are made by Panchayats (village councils). To ensure female participation, Rajiv Gandhi had “reserved” 33 percent of the positions on the Panchayats for women. Although there were “some complaints” that the women were “manipulated by their husbands,” Mrs. Gandhi asserted that “research had confirmed that women will invariably take the right decisions.” She noted that the UPA now wants to extend the same reservations to Parliament and the Legislative
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Assemblies. Mrs. Gandhi confirmed that currently the number of female MPs was “very small,” as “some parties believe that women should not be in power.”
The Indian Contradiction
8. (C) Shriver pointed out that her trip had made her aware of the “great contradiction” between a society in which women occupied many leadership positions, including, at times, Prime Minister,” but still were denied many basic rights. Mrs. Gandhi agreed with Shriver, noting that several Indian states had female Chief Ministers, and that an increasing numbers of Indian women are CEOs of major corporations, doctors, and scientists, and “we will keep fighting.” She explained that the situation for women varied from state to state, and that South India was “more progressive” than the North for various historical and cultural reasons, and that, for example, the state of Kerala supplied nurses to much of the Middle East.
Possible Indian Collaboration
9. (C) Praising the contribution of Indians and Indian-Americans to California, Shriver suggested that perhaps the GOI could help the state government combat its teacher and nursing shortage. She also noted that her family is very involved in the Special Olympics program and would like 500,000 participants for the Indian Special Olympics and hoped that Mrs. Gandhi would attend the events scheduled for November 6. Mrs. Shriver pointed out that those with intellectual disabilities were making great strides in the US, with many becoming self sufficient. This is necessary, she pointed out, “as we do not have the relevant institutions in the US.” Mrs. Gandhi conceded that Indian government institutions for the intellectually disabled are “nothing to write home about,” leaving parents and NGOs to deal with the problem, and that in rural areas, such children are “often hidden” and their disability “kept secret.”
Slow Social Change
10. (C) Mrs. Gandhi was not the least defensive about the gravity of India’s social problems. When asked by Shriver about adoption, she noted that adoptions remained rare in India and most Indians continued to “see nothing wrong” in that. It is a “happy change,” however, that more families are taking in orphans. She readily agreed with Shriver that many Indians still considered female children as “a problem” and preferred males and, as a result, more girls are abandoned than boys. Mrs. Gandhi reiterated that “education is the key to change” as much legislation is not enforced. This makes it necessary to “convince families and make them understand” to bring about positive change.
Personal Insights Into an Active Life
11. (C) Mrs. Gandhi then provided personal insights into her life, saying that she travels constantly all over India, often to remote areas to visit the common people, as “it is only by going out and interacting with people that we are in a better position to understand their problems and determine what they want.” She confided that there has been a big
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change in the Indian mindset regarding education. Earlier, parents were not very interested in ensuring their children were educated, while today, “99 percent want to send their children to school.” Everywhere you go in India today, she noted, you see children in their uniforms heading for school, and this is “something that makes us happy.” In addition to education, Indian parents want their children to have access to basic health care - “doctors and medicines,” and some assurance that they will have a job after they complete their education. Mrs. Gandhi worried that there will be huge numbers of young Indians leaving school with no guarantee of finding a job.
Population Control Off the Screen
12. (C) Mrs. Gandhi pointed out that “population control” is a political taboo in India after Indira Gandhi was voted out of office over this issue. Although she insisted allegations of forced vasectomies and other abuses were “highly exaggerated” and “politically motivated,” the historical memory has forced the UPA to focus on raising awareness and providing basic health services and means that progress on reducing the birth rate will be “slow.” Again, education will be the key, as demonstrated by the small family norm in urban areas.
Culture and Fighting AIDS
13. (C) Karan Singh pointed out that population reduction and AIDS control are linked as it requires condom distribution to combat both problems. Mrs. Gandhi pointed out that Northeast India faces a severe AIDS problem, as it is a transshipment point for narcotics with a growing drug problem. Cultural factors also inhibit AIDS control, as the government “cannot be open” with condom distribution because of “certain mindsets.” This compels the GOI to find an “appropriate way” to communicate with the population. Shriver responded that the US, as a multicultural society, faces many of the same problems, as men from some cultural backgrounds “don’t want anything to do” with family planning and AIDS prevention. The key, she emphasized, was “empowering women to demand action on these issues.”
India and the US
14. (C) Shriver observed that there was “no anti-Americanism” in India and that Indians from diverse backgrounds, cultures and religions have successfully found ways to coexist. Mrs. Gandhi replied that Indians are “inherently tolerant” as they have co-existed for centuries. Karan Singh added that the “freedom movement of Mahatma Gandhi” also played a crucial role as it was inclusive, pluralistic and emphasized that multiplicity of Indian culture. Mrs. Gandhi jokingly pointed out that the “Indian Left is anti-American,” but then agreed that its stance was aimed at “American policy” rather than the American people. Karan Singh emphasized that he and “most Indians” objected to many aspects of current American policy but held no brief against the American people. Mrs. Gandhi also pointed out that many Indian Muslims “resent certain policies of the US.”
More Personal Revelations
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15. (C) Mrs. Gandhi revealed that her own parents objected to her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi and she “resented their position” and went ahead and married him anyway. She also noted that she felt that her gender has never been an issue in her political life and that Indira Gandhi also made the same observation. In Hinduism, “women are seen as goddesses and no puja (worship) can take place without them,” while, ironically, oppression of women is common. She also revealed that common women in India’s rural areas do not hold her in great awe and don’t think of her as a great personality, as “their priorities are so different.”
Comment: A Relaxed Gandhi Provides A Rare Personal Insight
16. (C) Sonia Gandhi is often stiff and detached when in public. This was a more relaxed Sonia, possibly because she felt a personal rapport with Maria Shriver. In this more relaxed setting, Sonia Gandhi revealed a left of center political orientation which stresses the strong role of the government in ensuring social progress and her inherent opposition to the social conservatism of the Hindu right. At the same time, she entertained no illusions that she or the UPA will bring about rapid social change or uplift quickly India’s oppressed women. Instead, she embraced an evolutionary and patient approach based on a broad knowledge of Indian culture and traditions. She was, for example, acutely aware of the vast divide between rural and urban India and the inherent difficulty of pushing entrenched villagers into the 21st century. Deeply hurt by personal tragedy, she has erected a strong and stoic persona to prevent public access to her personal space. Whenever she spoke of the deaths of her husband and mother-in-law, she struggled to keep her emotions in check. Despite her carefully erected Indian persona, her basic Italian personality is clearly evident in her mannerisms, speech and interests. She presents an intriguing enigma of a warm private personality that remains concealed and is available only to her closest confidants and family members.
17. (U) Visit New Delhi’s Classified Website: (http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/sa/newdelhi/) PYATT