Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...


Thursday, May 13, 2004  

Holy Crap--Sonia Gandhi is PM! After more than a decade of expectations that she would continue the Nehru dynasty, she has finally (almost) done it. I first started going to India at the end of the 1980s, when her husband Rajiv was the Prime Minister. Rajiv was the third in a line of Congress Party rulers, going back to Jawaharlal Nehru. In the 1960s, his daughter Indira took the helm, ruling until her assassination in 1984. Even though Sonia is an Italian by birth and had no political experience, her election seemed perfectly plausible to Indians after Rajiv was killed.

Her ascent was halted by the rise of the Hindu nationalists. Politically, it was a familiar story: fundamentalists led by followers of the majority religion started making the argument that the country was a--in this case--Hindu country. With bigoted right-wing language, they fanned the passions of Hindus and put a hammerlock on politics. The Congress Party, which had ruled India for all except (I think) two or three years between Independence in 1947 and Rajiv's assassination in 1991, went into steep decline. The lead Hindu Nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began gaining power thereafter and put Atal Bihari Vajpayee in office in 1998.

The BJP was expected to remain in power. Vajpayee called for elections early on the assumption of victory, and everyone assumed the BJP would stay in power.

Indian premier Atal Behari Vajpayee, touted as the ruling coalition's show-stopping, vote-catching statesman-politician, had called the polls six months early on the back of his peace initiatives with nuclear rival and neighbour Pakistan and a perceived heady feeling over robust economic growth.

His party spin doctors had coined the phrase "India Shining" - a reference to what they said was a feel-good factor sweeping the country....

The television exit polls after the initial rounds had given the first signs of warning: most of them showed the main opposition Congress and its allies narrowing the gap with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.

"But the margin of NDA's defeat is truly stunning. The odds that the Congress could so soon become the largest party of India were certainly very low. It is a most surprising result," says Professor Ashutosh Varshney, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan.

Gandhi is the apparent heir to the position of Prime Minister--she's run the Congress Party since 1998, and energized the campaign. Her son Rahul further helped Congress's cause by winning a seat in parliament from Uttar Pradesh (where four other Gandhis have won seats). Still, it's not a done deal. As Congress begins to assemble its coalition, there will be pitched political maneuvering. Gandhi, for all her popularity, still has staunch critics (that Italian thing has always unnerved Indians, never mind the last name). For this old India watcher, even the prospect is amazing.

It's hard to say what it means to the world. Vajpayee, to his credit, had been making strong overtures to Pakistan--India's historic nemesis--for peace. The Indian economy is steaming along, but Vajpayee apparently lost because the bottom third of the wage-earners have been left behind. They may have backed Congress this time, but bringing 200 million people out of poverty won't be easy--they may not vote Congress next time. India has become a fairly stable democracy, however, and the changes are likely to be relatively small--at least for those of us looking East.

Wow. My jaw's still hanging open.

[Update: Gandhi declares the peace process will continue: "Most certainly. I would also like to add that from the very beginning we have been supporting Prime Minister Vajpayee's Pakistan policy."]

posted by Jeff | 6:59 AM |
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