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December 20, 2010 - 10:42 am

A US embassy cable released last week by Wikileaks describes how California First Lady Mary Shriver and Indian National Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi instantly bonded during an official state visit in 2006.

The cable from the US Embassy in New Delhi is titled, “A GARRULOUS SONIA GANDHI OPENS UP TO MARIA SHRIVER” and details a meeting between the two, when Shriver was in India to “lay the groundwork for a proposed trade mission” to be led by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The conversation with Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law lasted more than an hour, covering the rights of women, AIDs, the Indian Special Olympics and the way that Indian workers could help stem California’s nursing and teacher shortage.

The writer of the cable notes a certain closeness between the two as they compared the troubles facing females, gender inequalities and burden of being a leader, but also the wife of a leader.

A few selections:

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

The Indian press, however, is far more interested in the personal details of Gandhi’s life, particularly how her parents opposed her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi. The end of the cable reads almost like magazine profile:

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….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.

It just goes to show that Wikileaks isn’t only revealing secrets of state, but secrets of the heart.

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