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And now, Sonia Gandhi as prime minister?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-14

MUMBAI (India) - The results of the 2004 general elections, which came in yesterday, dramatically changed the political landscape of India.

They restored the hegemony of the Congress Party, India's oldest political grouping, which was in the political wilderness for almost a decade and which is now expected to form the next government. Voters surprisingly spurned the ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party which had spurred rapid economic progress, especially in the high-tech industry. The results showed that everyone had got the electoral math wrong: No one expected the NDA to lose, and certainly not so badly - not the pundits, not the pollsters, not even the political numbers crunchers in the smoke-filled back rooms of New Delhi.

But what most stunned Indians was that this country of 1.1 billion overwhelmingly poor people will now likely get as its prime minister Mrs Sonia Gandhi, a woman of Italian origin who's been an Indian citizen for barely two decades. 'No one expected that to happen,' said Sucheta Dalal, a leading economic writer in Mumbai. 'We are all surprised.'

True, Mrs Gandhi is a member of the fabled Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has turned out three prime ministers: Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, one of modern India's founding fathers; his daughter, Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984; and her son, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed in 1991. True, as Rajiv's widow she was personally held in high regard for her personal sacrifices and integrity.

And true, her relentless campaigning for the Congress this year galvanized a moribund party that was in danger of segueing into irrelevance as the BJP seemingly consolidated its stature as a vehicle for opening up the Indian economy after long years of Nehruvian socialism.

Still, few in India's combative electoral politics took Mrs Gandhi seriously - at least, few gave her any chance of leading the Congress to victory, let alone becoming the next prime minister. They failed to adequately take into account her insistent hammering on issues such as better irrigation, health care and primary education in rural region - which resonated mightily with India's majority peasants, who felt that the BJP's urban-oriented economic policies hadn't benefited the hinterland. Her critics glossed over how vigorously she articulated the Congress's vision for enhanced secularism, contrasting that vision with what Mrs Gandhi repeatedly denounced as the demeaning Hindu parochialism of the BJP that was an affront to a country of a myriad communities, ethnicities and faiths.

'Indians don't like communal hatred, they saw that the BJP's rule as creating further divides between Hindus and Muslims -- and Sonia Gandhi's message of peace, communal harmony and secularism went across well at the grassroots,' said Mrs Bakul R. Patel, former Sheriff of Mumbai and former chairman of the Maharashtra State Finance Corporation.

Now Sonia Gandhi will succeed her nemesis, the BJP's Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, who said he would resign as prime minister today (Thursday). Mr Vajpayee and his associates had openly questioned Mrs Gandhi's foreign origins, suggesting more than once that a foreigner would always be a foreigner in India, regardless of her passport, and therefore unfit to lead a vast modernizing nation with a 5,000-year-old culture. Yesterday's results showed that Indians were far more tolerant than Mr Vajpayee and his party of Hindu chauvinists.

Mrs Gandhi will be joined in the newly elected 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament, by her 33-year-old son, Rahul, who was also elected yesterday.

Mother and son will inherit a battery of challenges left by Mr Vajpayee's departing government.

Chief among them will be the construction of a new federal budget. India's government budget is traditionally presented by the government in February, but the Vajpayee administration postponed it to late June because of the election. Mrs Gandhi will have to decide how to tackle the country's deficit of 4.8 percent of the gross domestic product of US$550 billion. She will have to figure out how to increase government revenues - whether to steeply increase taxes on the rich.

She will also have to decide how to accommodate populist demands from the Left Front, the Congress's likely partner in cobbling together a parliamentary majority. The Front, for example, is opposed to privatization of public companies, contending that it causes too much economic and social dislocation as workers are laid off. But privatization also brings in more revenues for the government as old and unwieldy state-run enterprises are sold to the private sector.

And Mrs Gandhi will be under pressure to sustain the economic reforms that have quickened the annual rate of economic growth, generating nearly US$119 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Here again, the Left Front is likely to resist an emphasis on high-tech, preferring an orientation toward subsidy-based rural agro-economic development.

Stunning as Mrs Gandhi's victory is, it is dwarfed by something else. More than 65 percent of India's 650 million registered voters participated in this election. It was the largest demonstration ever of a democracy at work, an election that went off peacefully for the most part and resulted in an orderly change in government. And so, Italian prime minister or not, Indians have every reason to celebrate.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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