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Burma’s Next President

1 February 2014

Burma’s Next President

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Burmese democracy, declared last June that she would run for president in the 2015 election. If she ran, she would surely win: she is to Burma what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa. However, as things now stand she is not legally allowed to run for president – and maybe she should see that as an opportunity to reconsider whether becoming president is the best use of her talents.

Burma is part-way through a transition from a fifty-year military dictatorship to democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi is the unquestioned leader of the democratic movement. Unless the military rig or cancel next year’s election, her National League for Democracy (NLD) will certainly win a large majority in parliament in 2015. But she has no executive experience of any kind.

She doesn’t really have experience even in leading a political party, although she was a co- founder of the NLD in 1988 and has always been its leader. She was under house arrest most of the time, and most of the party’s other leaders were in jail, so she was never challenged by rivals and never had to administer anything.

Despite that she may be a wonderful natural leader, but such people are very rare. She is much more likely to be, like Mandela, an inspiring symbol of democracy with quite limited administrative skills. If so, she should rethink her position.

The law that bans her from the presidency is clause 59F of the constitution that was written by the military in 2008, which states that the spouse and children of a prospective president cannot owe their “allegiance to a foreign power.” It applies to her because her two sons with her late husband, the British academic Michael Aris, have British citizenship.

This is not just an unfortunate coincidence: the law was written that way to ensure that she could never become president. She presumably thought she had a deal to get rid of that clause when she agreed with the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, to run for parliament under the military-drafted constitution in late 2011.

Under that deal, the NLD ran candidates in 45 by-elections in April, 2012, and won 43 of them. The NLD members took up their seats in parliament, and the world concluded that the democratic transition in Burma was real. So the sanctions that many Western countries maintained against the military regime were relaxed, and investments began pouring into the moribund Burmese economy.

But clause 59F is still in the constitution. A parliamentary review committee with a majority of members from the generals’ tame political party reported last week that it had received 30,000 submissions for changes, including more than 5,000 on the “Suu Kyi clause.”

But it just listed all the submissions, making no recommendations about them – except to say that changes not requiring a referendum or that help to consolidate peace with Burma’s many armed ethnic minorities should be given priority. Changing clause 59F would require a referendum and it’s obviously not about rebel ethnic groups. It look like Suu Kyi has been had..

When Thein Sein was asked about the clause last week, he replied: “I would not want restrictions being imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country. At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty.” “Sovereignty”, of course, is code for not letting anyone with “foreign” ties near the presidency.

Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted half her adult life to bringing democracy to Burma, at great personal cost, and she clearly sees winning the presidency as the final validation of her long struggle. But before she launches a battle over clause 59F that will use up all the political oxygen for the next year, she should ask herself if the presidency is really where she can be most useful.

Is there nobody in her party, perhaps somebody a bit younger (she is 68), who has the right skills for the demanding job of executive president at a time of huge political and economic transformation? Maybe she should consider the example of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of India’s assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who led the Congress Party to a resounding election victory in 2004.

Sonia Gandhi could have become prime minister if she wanted, but she had a “foreign” problem too: she is an Indian citizen, but she was born and brought up Italian. So she chose economist Manmohan Singh to be prime minister, a job he has done with reasonable efficiency for the past ten years, while she remained Congress Party leader and kept it united behind him.

The circumstances are not identical, but Burma needs a president who (a) has the right skills for the job, and (b) has a united party behind him or her. Maybe Aung San Suu Kyi’s most useful role would be as party leader and moral authority, while somebody else gets down in the dirt and makes the day-to-day decisions that will eat away the popularity of even the most respected leader in the end.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 10. (“She doesn’t…anything”; “Under…economy”; and “When…presidency”)

Sonia Gandhi

18 May 2004

Sonia Gandhi: Throwing It All Away?

By Gwynne Dyer

The past few days must have been very frightening for Sonia Gandhi: death threats from racists furious at the defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have been flooding in, and she has already seen both her mother-in-law and her husband assassinated by extremists. But the time for her to decide whether she was up to the job of leading India was in 1998, when she accepted the leadership of the Congress Party, which was discredited by factionalism and corruption, and took on the task of rebuilding it.

For all her shyness in public, she did that job effectively, and then she led a revived Congress back to power in the biggest free election ever. The main reason that people, especially poor people and minorities, were willing to give it another chance was the fact that they saw her as the symbol of the old Congress Party that led India to independence, served the poor, and was dedicated to preserving a secular, open, multicultural society. To change her mind at the last minute and reject the prime ministership was a betrayal of their trust — and she may have thrown away more than that.

No doubt her son and daughter had a part in persuading her to step aside and let another senior Congress Party member become prime minister in her place: Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have already lost their father and their grandmother to assassins, and they don’t want to lose their mother too. The crash on the Bombay Stock Exchange, the biggest one-day decline in 129 years, also played a role, though that was driven not by lack of faith in Sonia Gandhi but by worries about the fact that a Congress government would have to depend on Communist votes to survive.

The man who now becomes prime minister instead, Manmohan Singh, will certainly calm nerves at the BSE: in 1991-96 he was finance minister in the earlier Congress government that ended central planning, privatised some state corporations, and finally put the Indian economy on a high-growth trajectory. He is free of the taint of corruption, and as India’s first minority-group prime minister (he is Sikh), he still symbolises the victory of multicultural tolerance over the BJP’s intolerant Hindu exclusivism. But the stock market panic could have been calmedsimply by bringing him back as finance minister — and he isn’t the symbol that was needed.

While much else has been going right in India in recent years, one thing has been going terribly wrong. For the past six years, behind the engaging and genuinely well-meaning facade provided by the BJP’s official leader, outgoing prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Hindu supremacists who populate the party’s upper reaches have been busily undermining the foundations of India’s secular society.

The most spectacular recent manifestation of its Hindu-first, anti-minority policy was the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, which had the tacit support of the BJP state government, but more insidious for the long run was the deliberate attack on the education system. Wherever the BJP’s writ ran, school textbooks have been systematically rewritten to represent Hindus as a victimised and downtrodden majority and to portray Indian Muslims and Christians as somehow foreign and disloyal to the real, Hindu India. (You can also now get a university degree in Vedic astrology.)

This subversion of India’s long tradition of tolerance and openness to a diversity of faiths and cultures was not just damaging Indian society and undermining democracy. It was bad for the rest of the world, too, because it matters a great deal whether the India that takes its place as one of the world’s Big Three powers over the next generation (the other two will be the US and China) is a tolerant secular democracy or a sectarian, ultra-nationalist state with a huge chip on its shoulder. The attitudes of the generation who will run that India are being shaped in the schools now.

The voters’ rejection of the BJP was a hopeful sign, but now Congress has to deliver. Sonia Gandhi shows no signs that she is a great administrator, and several other senior Congress politicians could probably do the job of keeping the economic miracle going while bringing some real help to the neglected poor as well or better than she would. But she is the indispensable symbol of the multicultural, tolerant India that must now be restored after the long BJP assault. That is vitally important in itself, and it is also the only common goal that binds all the parties of the coalition together.

Not having Sonia Gandhi as the prime minister is a blow to that common goal and quite possibly to the cohesion of the coalition. She has listened to her “inner voice,” but it looks like a lack of respect for the millions who voted Congress only and precisely because they felt that she embodied the idea of a modern, secular India that cared for its people and made no distinctions between them on the basis of race, religion, language or caste.

There is even speculation that she never really intended to become prime minister at all, and was merely lending her name to help revive the Congress Party. If that it true, it shows genuine contempt for the voters,and such actions are eventually punished in politics. The Congress government will survive, at least for a while, and it may even do some good work, but it has just lost the respect of the people who voted for it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The man…secular society”)