India: Congress in Power: The Sikh and Sonia The Sanyasin (Pt 2 of a 2 Pt Series begun in April '04 Issue)


Rakesh Ahuja

Part Two of a Two Part series begun in the April 2004 issue on "Federal Elections The Feel Good Factor vs Dynasticitis (Part One of a Two Part Series on the Indian Elections")

India's 14th Federal elections wrought an electoral quake. Confounding pollsters, the opposition Congress emerged as the single largest party. That put paid to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance's over-confident gamble in calling early elections. It also exposed the disconnect between the elite 'chatterati' and the mass of voters in rural as well as urban constituencies.

After a complex, consensus and coalition making exercise, the Congress fashioned the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). A resurgent Left agreed to support the Government from 'outside', preferring the role of a watchdog to the constraints of collective responsibility in the coalition manger. Italian-born Congress President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi declined the Prime Ministerial platter, anointing Dr. Man Mohan Singh for the position. That is a first for a minority community. (Sikhs comprise 2 per cent of the population.)

The election outcome was not a stunning win for the Congress. In fact, reversing past trends, the BJP won marginally more popular votes. While vagaries of the first past the post system took their toll, it was nonetheless a startling defeat for a party, which had trumpeted its expectations of knitting together a comfortable majority, if not winning outright.

Several factors account for the BJP's surprising defeat: a high-tech media strategy, based on grandiose slogans, which appealed only to the urban affluent; the failure of economic reforms to meet the rising expectations of rural masses and lower middle classes; spectacular debacles in key states because of ill-judged electoral alliances; bitter memories of unchecked Hindu/Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002; and the anti-incumbency factor, which cost BJP 50 per cent of its sitting members.

The party's trump card against Gandhi's foreign origin also backfired. She blunted it successfully by invoking traditional cultural norms of her status as a bahu (daughter in law) belonging to her marital (Nehru) family, caretaker of its legacy, and as the widow and mother of Indian born. Mrs. Gandhi also enhanced her 'Indianness' on the hustings. Carrying the burden of the Congress campaign almost single-handedly and playing to concerns about poverty, unemployment and the plight of rural India, she displayed a common touch intermingling, speeches in Hindi, simple attire and food.

The foreign origin issue became a non-issue when, after her victory, Mrs. Gandhi refused to don the Prime Minister's mantle. It was a political masterstroke, appealing to the very core of the Indian civilisational value system. Renunciation (sanyas) is an icon in the Hindu Dharmic tradition - from Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi. By renouncing power when it was hers to take, Sonia Gandhi fit the bill in popular perceptions. She now carries the halo of a sanyasin, a renunciate, possessing an unmatched moral authority in the political firmament. There is another subliminal bonus. By stepping aside for Dr. Singh, she has also helped to heal the residual wounds of the schism between the Gandhi family and Sikhs, dating from the Khalistan secessionist conflict in the eighties.

Cynics have dismissed Gandhi's action as political theatre, arguing that the elected Prime Minister will manipulate the selected Prime Minister by a remote. May be. But overt interference in, as distinct from covert influence on, Government policies and its running will seriously undermine the unrivalled stature and the spiritual high ground Gandhi now commands. And then there is the good Doctor's own proven integrity. He is no puppet. His soft-spoken demeanour belies his resolve. Besides he has been there before. As Finance Minister in the nineties, the then Prime Minister Rao shielded him from political interference as he quietly went about discarding the Congress' ideological shibboleths to launch economic liberalisation.

The stage is set for a cooperative partnership at least in the medium term. Even ascribing the worst political motives to Sonia Gandhi, a stable Government is in her interest. While Singh implements the next stage of economic reforms with a 'human face', she can nurse a fractious coalition, add substance to her moral ascendancy, and smooth the way for the political future of her children.

A Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a female, foreign-born, Caucasian Catholic now govern India. Some 75 per cent of the population is Hindu. Other multicultural societies might wish to take note.

WATCHPOINT: The Federal Budget on 8 July will be a pointer to the UPA coalition's stability as it seeks to balance the pulls of economic prudence with populist pressures from its disparate constituents.

Rakesh Ahuja University of Canberra

WATCHPOINT: The Federal Budget on 8 July will be a pointer to the UPA coalition s stability as it seeks to balance the pulls of economic prudence with populist pressures from its disparate constituents.


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