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Is Sonia capable of leading India?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-04-22

The name of Allan Octavian Hume doesn't resonate much in India these days as does that of Sonia Gandhi, but there's a connection there that reaches across three centuries, three countries and one political party. The link is especially relevant because of the controversy gathering around Mrs Gandhi's Italian origins, which her critics say should disqualify her from leading the Indian government, should her party win a majority in the parliamentary elections that started yesterday (Tuesday).

Hume was the Briton who founded India's oldest political party, the Indian National Congress, late in the 19th century. He felt that everyday Indians deserved better governance from the colonial British authorities. He was soon joined by prominent Indians such as Motilal Nehru, the patriarch of what was to be a dynasty that produced three prime ministers of an independent India in the 20th century: Motilal's son, Jawaharlal Nehru; Jawaharlal's daughter, Indira Gandhi; and Mrs Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia husband. And now, in the 21st century, both Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul--who's running for parliament, too--are seen as potential prime ministers of this country of 1.1 billion people.

That such a vast country's biggest single party should be led by a woman who gave up her Italian citizenship barely 20 years ago, galls the ruling 22-party coalition, the National Democratic Alliance. Its main element, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in high dudgeon over Mrs Gandhi's contention that, in a secular state such as India, a person's ethnic and national origins should not matter. What should count instead, Sonia contends, is a person's loyalty to India and capacity to participate in public life. Her supporters point out that having lost her husband--in 1991--and her mother-in-law--in 1984--to assassins surely suggests that Sonia Gandhi has paid an enormous price for the privilege of being considered an Indian.

They also assert that India's cultural traditions are not exclusionary. Indian society, say Sonia supporters, has always welcomed outsiders to assimilate and nourish indigenous society through their imported customs and sensibilities. Sometimes, of course, local calculations concerning outsiders have gone awry: witness what happened when native potentates, taken with visiting tradesmen of the East India Company, invited them to set up shop in India. The visitors soon became the victors as the British company conquered Indian territory, paving the way for colonial rule that lasted more than 150 years--until Allan Octavian Hume's Congress Party succeeded in ending the British Raj in 1947.

In Hume's time, no one questioned his motives in forming the Congress Party. Indeed, the fact that he was a Briton--a member of the same colonial class that occupied India--was perceived as a plus because he could offer insights into British mentality and sensitivities. But then, Hume never aspired to become India's formal leader; indeed, at the time that he founded the Congress, the civilian struggle that would result in independence wasn't even a gleam in local leaders' eyes. That movement obtained momentum only after Mohandas K. Gandhi--the Mahatma--mobilized the masses in the early part of the 20th century.

Sonia Gandhi's motives in seeking India's stewardship are being increasingly questioned, however. That's not only because of her Italian background (she met her late husband when he was a student at Cambridge University, and she was studying English in Britain). There are numerous political scandals linked to Rajiv Gandhi that have yet to find closure: the $1.2 billion Bofors arms deal in which millions were allegedly paid to middlemen close to the Gandhis; an oil pipeline deal that was awarded to Gandhi cronies; a German submarine contract involving questionable bidding procedures. There are dark murmurings about sinister "foreign factors" contributing to Sonia's political campaign. No one is charging that Sonia Gandhi took illicit money, of course, but some of her friends are suspected of having their hands in the till.

Be that as it may, the central question remains: Is Sonia Gandhi personally qualified to be modern India's leader? The answer is best offered through another question: Why not? She's still young--just 57 years old--and reflects the aspirations of India's overwhelmingly youthful population as India competes in a world of globalization: some 75 percent of Indians are under 35 years of age, and many of them see in the sari-clad Sonia a modern woman of international elan who nonetheless is well anchored in India's cultural traditions and mores. They are especially laudatory of the manner in which she's raised her two children, Rahul and Priyanka.

Sonia has domestic stature in a country where the public can be quite unforgiving of politicians: the crowds that Sonia draws during her constant travels throughout the country bear testimony to her popularity. I recall her appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations a few years back when she vowed a luncheon gathering of prominent Americans with her political savvy, wit and easy charm.

Sonia also embodies the kind of secularism that was long a characteristic of the Indian body politic, until Hindu fundamentalists in recent years took up the drumbeat of a more chauvinistic India. In a country of myriad religions and even more languages and ethnicities, it would be impossible to impose a single dominant faith on the political system.

Of course, in these contemporary times of social and political egalitarianism, family dynasties can no longer stake a claim to a nation's stewardship. Her marriage into the Nehru-Gandhi clan shouldn't be an automatic ticket for Sonia Gandhi to obtain entry into the corridors of power. But neither should her background be the grounds for excluding her from high office. Indians need to revive their traditional magnanimity toward those who have offered sacrifice in the cause of public service. Whatever else that could be said about her, there can be little doubt about Sonia's extraordinary sacrifices for her adopted land, India.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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