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Jonathan Power: Talking to Sonia Gandhi

I walk up Sonia Gandhi’s driveway, past guards toting Uzi machine guns, and can’t help thinking that when I came to interview Indira Gandhi (Sonia’s mother-in-law) on the eve of her great comeback and massive electoral win in 1980, I walked up to her front door and knocked. There were no guards and only one servant to let me in. Only four years later, however, Indira would be assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards as revenge for ordering the army’s attack on Sikh freedom fighters holed up at Amritsar’s Golden Temple. I am ushered into Sonia’s office. She barely acknowledges my presence. “Buon giorno,” I say. There is no reply. I have been warned that she is cold. She doesn’t offer me a hand, but walks over and asks me to sit down. Sonia is the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was cruelly blown to smithereens by a female Tamil terrorist, a member of the now-defeated Tamil independence struggle in neighboring Sri Lanka. (It was the Tamils who invented both the suicide bomber and its female variant.) Since 1998, Sonia has held the presidency of the Indian National Congress Party, though she rejected the offer of the post of prime minster in 2004. “Do you mind if I begin with a personal question?” “Yes,” she says. I pause, then continue: “Wasn’t it difficult to decide to go into politics, knowing the dangers and the terrible toll it has taken on your family?” “I am at peace about that,” she replies. “I have thought it through.” Then she suddenly interjects, “I hope this isn’t an interview. I just want us to get to know each other a bit.” I remind her, perhaps a bit defensively, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (also a leader of the Congress Party) had arranged the introduction and said I could conduct an interview. We continue, but I put down my notebook and lapse into a gentler, more conversational style. “Why did the pull of politics overcome your inhibitions?” I ask.

Jonathan Power: On How Not to Press the Reset Button

Precise quid pro quos are not good in marital or romantic relationships. Neither do they work well in big time politics. If made too precisely, they suggest that the other side is not to be trusted unless there is a “deal.” When there is conflict—either at home, with friends, or indeed with enemies—one needs to change the atmosphere, to restore a sense of trust so that opinions and arrangements can be freely traded. One good turn encourages, but not demands, a good turn by the other side. At the end of the Cold War, we saw such magnanimity and Americans, Russians, Europeans, and the rest of the world benefited immensely from it. Two great presidents were responsible for this—George H. W. Bush in the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. In 1991, Bush decided unilaterally to de-alert all bombers, 450 of the deadly accurate city-destroying Minuteman missiles, and missiles in ten Poseidon submarines (each with enough warheads to destroy Moscow, Leningrad, and every city in between). Gorbachev, taking the cue, deactivated 500 land-based nuclear tipped missiles and six submarines (weapons that could have reduced the most populated parts of the United States to ashes and dust). Moreover, this wasn't the cosmetic de-alerting that's talked about today. Missile silos and submarine crews actually had their launch keys taken away from them. This is why President Barack Obama (if The New York Times has got the story right) has made a big mistake in his opening move following the pressing of the now-infamous “reset button.” His letter to President Dimitri Medvedev suggesting that Washington was open to discussions on the dismantling of the anti-missile site now being constructed on Polish soil (if Russia would lean harder on Iran to halt its presumed nuclear weapons program) was misconceived. What his letter should have said is simply, “President George W. Bush initiated a policy that the United States no longer stands by. We want to reopen discussions with you that will lead to our abandonment of said project.” Full stop. Period. Then, once the reset button starts the music, the notes will start to write themselves, so long as the mood remains good.

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