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”)