Controversial Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi was a regular visitor to the Prime Minister’s official residence at Race Course Road during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi as the country’s head of government. A number of Sonia Gandhi’s family members and friends would visit the house and Quattrocchi was one of them.
Making the disclosure in his political memoirs, The Chinar Leaves, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s political advisor Makhan Lal Fotedar has stated that “many a time when Sonia and Rajiv were away, Rahul and Priyanka would stay at Quattrocchi’s house in South Delhi. His friendship with the family eventually led to the accusations by the Opposition parties that he was a key player in the controversial Bofors deal.”
Fotedar further observes that “Sonia’s influence on Rajiv was also visible when he distanced himself from many of his erstwhile friends and colleagues. The reverse was also true, as many people who had her approval got access to the household.”
However, during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister, she (Indira) was the one who laid the ground rules. “I do recall that sometime in late November, 1980, Indiraji returned home (1, Safdarjung Road) to find renovation work being carried out in one of the bathrooms. On enquiring, she learnt that the bathroom was being redone since Sonia’s parents were expected for Christmas celebrations. Losing her temper Indiraji made it abundantly clear that there could be no Christmas party at her house as the family was still in mourning (Sanjay had died in a plane crash on 23 June 1980).”
Indira Gandhi had her point of view on several matters, but did not interfere in the affairs of Sonia and Rajiv. However, she had certain reservations about their proximity to a UK educated politician who she refused to induct in her Cabinet despite pressure being mounted on her by both Rajiv and Sonia.
Indira Gandhi had developed a lot of fondness for Sonia and recognised her role in Rajiv’s life. After Sanjay’s death, Indira Gandhi was in total grief. But she was also aware about the growing discord within the household at 1, Safdarjung Road as both Sonia and Maneka were not getting along. Maneka’s relations with Indira Gandhi also got worse and she eventually moved out of the house. Thus Sonia’s position got consolidated within the Prime Minister’s house. Indira Gandhi was of the view that Rajiv would use Sonia as a sounding board whenever something political was discussed between Indira Gandhi and him in Fotedar’s presence. Rajiv would excuse himself and go to the living quarters and return after a while. During one such meeting, when Rajiv had gone inside to his side of the house, Indira Gandhi confided in Fotedar that he had gone to receive Sonia’s approval. In her opinion, Sonia was politically very mature and had a positive influence on her son.
Fotedar has also recalled the first time he saw Sonia Gandhi was at her wedding reception where he too had been invited by Indira Gandhi. Sonia was very shy and appeared overawed by the presence of so many powerful people. Indira Gandhi, however, made sure that she felt comfortable and looked very composed and happy despite the political storm she had been facing.
Many years later after Fotedar was appointed the Political Secretary, Indira Gandhi confided in him something very close to her heart. “One day while talking about some family matter, Indiraji told me Rajiv is lucky to have Sonia as his wife. I looked at her and did not understand why she spoke about Sonia. I wanted you to know this, she said. She further told me that she had wanted a Kashmiri Pandit girl for Rajiv and had in fact shortlisted a couple of girls from very good Kashmiri families for Rajiv. But since he had fallen in love with Sonia in London, she had to accept his choice. She told me that despite being Italian, Sonia had adjusted very well to Indian conditions and she was happy to have her as her daughter-in- law and the mother of her two lovely grandchildren.”
Fotedar has further written that after being voted out of power in 1977, Indira Gandhi was busy preparing for her comeback on one hand and dealing with the revolt against her leadership within the Congress on the other. Y.B. Chavan, K. Brahmanand Reddy, K.C. Pant, Dr Karan Singh and others had revolted and were seeking Indira Gandhi’s expulsion from the party. But her never say die spirit saw her through the huge crisis and supported by her younger son, Sanjay, Indira split the Congress and formed Congress (I) in January 1978. “Sanjay was her political heir and she relied a lot on his advice and political judgement”.