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Alliterating India and Italy

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sonia-gandhidi Uttara Thakore

Of all the countries in the European Union, Italy has the largest stake in modern day India. This comes as a surprise to most Italians I know, given that Italy is only India’s fifth largest trading partner in the EU, and the relationship between the two countries has never been significantly newsworthy.

India’s oldest and most prolific political family, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (not to be confused with Mahatma Gandhi), will present its youngest candidate to the Indian public in the 2014 elections. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice-President of the currently in-power Congress party, just happens to be half Italian.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty will always occupy a significant place in Indian history. Italian born Sonia Gandhi, mother of Rahul Gandhi, is now president of the Indian National Congress following her husband Rajiv’s untimely death. She was born to Stefano and Paola Maino , in Lusiana in Veneto. Her foreign birth has always been the subject of debate, and has been excessively dissected by her detractors. She remains the only foreign-born person to lead the Congress since independence from British rule.

Those that respect her do because of her loyalty to her husband’s family and by extension his country. Sonia said in an interview, “Everything I have loved and lost has been in India.”Six years after her husband’s death and two elections later, no one could say she married into her position. She had earned the job of Prime Minister which was then presented to her. She turned it down, saying, “Power has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal. I was always certain that if I ever found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. Today that voice tells me that I must humbly decline this post. I appeal to you to accept the force of my conviction and to recognize I will not reverse the decision.” Whether as Prime Minister or head of the Congress party, she chose to become an Indian leader and therefore, an Indian. In the world’s largest democracy, another title could not possibly be palatable. By her own admission, in spirit she is as Indian as the people who vote for her. Growing up in India I didn’t for the longest time know she was Italian, Sonia being a not unfamiliar first name. Prior to her husband’s death, she was often photographed dressed in the best Prada or Gucci. After 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil nationalist suicide bomber, she was and still is, only caught on camera in a sari. The Guardian listed her as one of the fifty best-dressed over 50 in their March 2013 issue. It would appear she wears India well.

Whether her dual national loyalties plague her intrinsically has never been visible to the Indian populace. Sonia Gandhi has famously always been dismissive of her Italian roots. She does not take interviews with Italian journalists and was noticeably tight-lipped during the recent Italian-Indian marines’ scandal. Former senior Congress leader and the current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee told the press that she surrendered her Italian passport to the Italian Embassy on 27 April 1983. Italian nationality law did not permit dual nationality until 1992. So, by acquiring Indian citizenship in 1983, she would automatically have forfeited her Italian citizenship. Yet her detractors still use this when they run out of fodder. While I admire Sonia’s fierce loyalty to my country, she does us a disservice if she does not acknowledge all aspects of who she is. Dual personalities in politics is an expected evil, whether in India or in Italy.

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Modern day politics notwithstanding, history draws parallels as well. The modern Italian Republic was born only in 1946, just one year before India became independent. From a historical viewpoint, both these countries have some very distinct similarities. Clara Fiorini, a history professor based in Milan, told Indian newspaper The Hindu, ““Like India, Italy was forever being invaded by the outside world. Both our countries are insular peninsulas, protected in the north by the Himalayas in your case and by the Alps in ours. India was constantly taken over, first by the Aryans, followed by the Greeks, the Muslim rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Portuguese, the British, the Dutch, the French … and the country was divided into several independent kingdoms or city states like Hyderabad, Mysore, Gwalior, etc. It was the same with us. We had very powerful city states like Venice, Florence, Genoa, Pisa or Amalfi. We were ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs and also by the Austrians. Then came the Napoleonic wars from 1796 to 1814, when Napoleon destroyed several parts of Venice including the great Arsenale or shipbuilding docks and stole some of our best Renaissance art treasures. When you are ruled by foreign powers, the only persons you can trust are members of your own family or community. That is how Italy’s nepotism began. In India of course, appurtenances to caste and community have the same effect.”

Both countries are ancient civilizations but young states, Italy having been re-unified in 1861. Their geographical placement also gives them a very diverse population. Indians from the north can manage to look relatively Italian under the Tuscan sun. Similarly, a southern Italian could probably walk around in Mumbai without attracting attention, as foreigners are wont to do. This is out of character for a country that still has a bit of a colonial hangover, and is instinctually mistrusting of foreigners. But India makes exceptions for Italy.

The most endearing aspect of the relationship between the two countries is how it began. The term itself is what connects the two; relationships. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited Italy in 1926, on invitation of Carlo Formichi, a Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Rome. Unlikely friendships between scholars and intellectuals created a quiet unassuming foundation for the association between India and Italy. It is fostered by continued cultural exchanges between the countries. An agreement for Cultural Cooperation has been in existence since 1976. Under the Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP), exchange of students to learn languages and to undergo various academic courses continues.

As a professor at Bocconi said to me, relationships are at the core of all human activity. Politics is human relationships. Game of thrones will tell you the same thing. It makes for an interesting study, this relationship, for the individuals who abhor being involuntary ambassadors for their country and seek to be better world citizens. In India and Italy, most people’s daily lives are relatively unaffected by where the political winds blow, their importance being replaced by the dynamics of daily relationships. The most significant relationship to be discussed in this context remains the marriage of Sonia and Rajiv, which affects India’s politics in indiscernible ways.

An excerpt from Australian writer Gregory Roberts, in his best-selling book Shantaram, goes; “The Indians are the Italians of Asia. It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that the Italians are the Indians of Europe, but you do understand me, I think. There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indians in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. The Language of India and the language of Italy, they make every man a poet, and make something beautiful from every banalite. They are nations where love – amore, pyaar – makes a cavalier of a Borsalino on a street corner, and makes a princess of a peasant girl, if only for the second that her eyes meet yours.”

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While I don’t possess Roberts’ gift of prose, I feel quite at home in a country run by the Pope, the Mafia and Berlusconi. Attempting to create order and prosperity from such conflicting individual philosophies reminds me of India. And in some ways is reflective of the world at large and how we maneuver thru it.

Outside of the realm of politics and history, numbers obscure but they also illuminate. The volume of bilateral trade between India and Italy during 2011 reached Euro 8521.71 million. The exports from India reached Euro 4781.62 million, an increase of 25.06% in comparison to 2010. But in the aftermath of the maritime scandal, things changed. Romeo Orlandi, professor at the faculty of Economics at the Bologna University, wrote for Alberto Forchielli’s Osservatorio Asia about his misgivings.

“There is more cause for worry about the structure of Italian-Indian commerce. In 2011, India was only the destination for 1% of Italy’s exports, the data confirming the weakness of Italian exports to India. These numbers do not do justice to Italy’s export capacity, India’s economic growth, or the industrial capabilities of both countries; when the wounds of the Italian Marine scandal have healed, the soul-searching ought to consider these aspects. Their roots are decades-old, and as they abide by Italy’s choices (or lack thereof), it would be unwise to attribute them to recent events.”

The fact that trade between the countries is not what it could be is a travesty. Despite political turbulences, already existing Italian businesses continue to thrive in India. Around 140 large Italian companies are active in India. Some of the major Italian companies that have invested in India are FIAT Auto, Heinz Italia, FIOlA, Italcementi, NecchiCompressori, Perfetti, Lavazza, Fata Hunter Engineering, ENI, SAI India, Isagro (Asia) Agrochemicals, Piaggio, and Impreglio, SEA Deutzfahr Group, FinmeccanicaSpA, Ferrero. The prominent Indian companies operating in Italy include Tata, TCS, Wipro, Engineers India Limited, L&T, Mahindra &Mahindra, Ranbaxy, Raymonds, and Jet Airways. The State Bank of India has a representative office in Milan. Six Italian banks have representation in India.

Indian influences make its way to Italy in other ways as well. I nearly had a seizure when one of my Italian friends showed me a commercial by director Francesco Nencini, for a household cleaning agent. The advertising jingle was a Bollywood song sung in Italian, complete with a dance. It remains one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Italy comes to India in similar ways. A print ad campaign for olive oil in an Indian newspaper featured the following picture. It featured the line, “I may be used for pastas and salads, but I make a mean samosa.” It was hilarious but effective, a droll combination of a roti and a pizza. There is also a rap song somewhere on youtube, where Italy and India face-off, which I recommend just because it’s so stupid, it’s funny.

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I’ve wondered even recently if isolated episodes such as the maritime scandal, the older but more controversial Bofors and VVIP scams, and the less publicized Italian hostage situation where Italian national Paolo Basusco and Claudio Colangelo were held for ransom by Naxal insurgents in Odisha, can with such ease, affect what was otherwise a cordial relationship. The most recent disturbance, the maritime scandal, mandated UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to step in. He called on both the countries to resolve the issue amicably. The fact that this was necessary speaks volumes about the countries relationship today. The ruling Congress party, deeply unwelcoming of any mention of Sonia’s Italian roots, did not dare appear soft on the Italians. It is a classic example of the ripple effect of Sonia’s heritage. It does neither country any favors.

I cite Sonia because she is, in many ways, the physical embodiment of the alliteration of India and Italy. Both are young democracies, still untested on the world stage, far too preoccupied fighting corruption within themselves to fight other nations. Their religious core defines the people of the world as we know them, and when you shelve GDP briefly in your economic comparisons, you realize what these countries gave to the world: whether for better or for worse, belief gives the human life validation.

It is unclear what the future holds for India or Italy, together or apart. But it is certain that in India’s future, Italy will always play a role.


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