The Tortoise and the Hare

16 May 2004

The Tortoise and the Hare?

By Gwynne Dyer

India has its first foreign-born prime minister. Sonia Gandhi, born 57 years ago in the village of Orbassano, not far from Milan, is going to be the leader of the world’s largest democracy and its second-largest country, even though her Hindi is still Italian-accented and her religion is Catholic. And all the people who voted for her knew that.

This could never happen in the United States, where the president must be native born. (The Founding Fathers foresaw the danger of a Schwarzenegger presidency.) It has happened a few times in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but it has never happened in Europe, in Africa, or elsewhere in Asia. In particular, you cannot imagine it happening in China. India is turning out to be a very interesting place.

You can imagine a non-white woman as prime minister in Canada or even in Britain or France in the next twenty years; they have all had women prime ministers already, and most of the urban under-40s are virtually colour-blind. The United States may get a woman president in 2008 (her name is Hilary), and Colin Powell’s colour would not have been a fatal impediment if he had chosen to run for president in 2000. But Sonia Gandhi is the wrong colour, the wrong sex, the wrong language, the wrong religion — and Indians still voted for her.

It was magnificent, and all the more so because they were consciously rejecting the racist and sectarian incitements of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party that deliberately targets minorities. The BJP’s rallies regularly trotted out Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu preacher turned politician who was reelected by a landslide in Gujarat in 2002 after the slaughter of at least a thousand Muslims earlier in the year. But this month the BJP in Gujarat lost six of its twenty seats in the national parliament.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to moderate the BJP’s sectarian message to win support from India’s Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, and from the 180 millions Dalits (untouchables) who are excluded by orthodox Hinduism, but he couldn’t pry them away from their traditional loyalty to Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress Party. By courting non-Hindus, however, he alienated his core supporters, the ‘Hindutva’ fanatics of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS-National Volunteer Corps) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-World Hindu Congress), who stayed away from his election campaign in droves.

So Congress and its allies won a majority of the seats in the Lok Sabha (parliament), to the astonishment of all the analysts. Urban India has done well under the BJP — an 8 percent economic growth rate last year — but the rural areas were left behind. Congress’s key election promise was that one member of each rural household will have a job for 100 days a year. It may be a hard promise to keep, but it did the trick.

With the support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has long ruled West Bengal in a distinctly non-Marxist style, Congress will form India’s next government — and Sonia Gandhi will be prime minister. What an extraordinary contrast with India’s major Asian rival, China.

China is far ahead of India economically at the moment, but it has yet to hold its first democratic election. Even if it did, can you imagine China electing somebody who was not a native-born ethnic Chinese as leader? A woman? Somebody who was born in another continent, but chose to become Chinese? It’s unthinkable — which says a great deal about the difference between the two countries.

“I never felt they look at me as a foreigner,” Sonia Gandhi said recently, “because I am not. I am Indian.” She is Indian because she has lived there for 36 years, since she was 21; because her mother-in-law and her husband were both assassinated while serving India; and because she became an Indian citizen twenty years ago. She belongs there, in most Indians’ eyes, and the BJP’s racist complaints about her birthplace — “the high offices of the country should be held by people of Indian origin,” said BJP president Venkaiah Naidu — have been rejected by Indian voters.

A Congress-led government will probably cool down the urban boom while it concentrates on providing electricity, clean water and roads to the several hundred million rural poor who felt left out by the BJP’s pro-urban, pro-middle class policies. But despite the current stock market panic, Congress will not abandon economic liberalisation; it was a Congress government that launched that policy in 1991.

Nor should India worry about being left behind by China, for it made the democratic transition long ago and it now inhabits a different political universe. China’s poor are at least as alienated as India’s, but they have no vote, no way of changing their situation short of violence. Politics in China can still lurch into violent extremes like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tienanmen Square massacre, and there is still a long and dangerous transition ahead before it becomes a modern, democratic country.

India has democratic safety valves that let the pressure escape; China does not. China will doubtless get there in the end, but it is still vulnerable to upheavals that could cost it many years of growth. It may end up playing the hare to India’s slow-but-steady tortoise.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“This…place”; and “ACongress…1991”)

NOTE: It is highly likely that Sonia Gandhi will become prime minister, but if you are using the article before the decision is final you should modify the first sentence to read:

India may soon have its first foreign-born prime minister. Sonia Gandhi, born 57 years ago in the village of Orbassano, not far from Milan, is almost certain to become the leader…