- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

NEW DELHI — It took India’s tumultuous democracy six weeks to complete the recent national elections, but then it triggered a series of bizarre events and high drama that left the country without a government for nine days.

First came the political shock, with the election result disproving every pundit and exit poll and making a foreign-born female leader, Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful figure in Indian politics.

This was followed by an inexplicable crash in the Indian stock market, as if the empowerment of the Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi were a political calamity for India.

A buoyant Mrs. Gandhi wasted little time in getting the newly elected lawmakers of her Congress party to meet in New Delhi and pick her for the top job in the world’s most populous democracy — prime minister. Then came the second thoughts on her part and another political shock for the nation.

In a scene unparalleled in any democracy, the triumphant leader decided after three days to be the kingmaker rather than the king. Mrs. Gandhi, the Congress party president, announced that her “inner voice” dictated that she turn down the job that was hers for the asking.

In a further bizarre twist a day later, Mrs. Gandhi got her party to hurriedly amend its constitution to permit her to be the party’s leader in Parliament despite her decision not to assume power. Immediately thereafter, she was first elected the party chief in Parliament and then — like a cult figure choosing a stand-in — she nominated a member of her inner circle for the post of prime minister.

Mrs. Gandhi’s choice, Manmohan Singh — a widely respected Sikh economist — fits well with the tradition of the past 15 years of India having a succession of aging, ailing prime ministers — despite a majority of Indian citizens being under the age of 25.

But in most other ways, Mrs. Gandhi has defied tradition. Mr. Singh is the first technocrat to head the Indian government. Normally, technocrats assume high political positions in communist, military-ruled or other authoritarian systems. Mr. Singh’s expertise and experience are restricted to economic policy, but now he will have to learn on the job how to cope with India’s pressing political, internal-security and foreign-policy challenges.

Although soft-spoken and noncontroversial Mr. Singh — a nominated member of the upper house of Parliament — is hardly emblematic of a democracy. He has never won an election, and the only time he contested a seat in the ruling lower house of Parliament, he lost.

Moreover, as someone beholden to Mrs. Gandhi and working in her shadow, Mr. Singh may find it difficult to establish moral and political authority to effectively lead the country. In fact, important members of Mr. Singh’s Cabinet are also being handpicked by Mrs. Gandhi.

Mr. Singh, who initiated India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s as finance minister, has conceded that only Mrs. Gandhi has the public mandate to be prime minister and that he took her place at her insistence. So while Mr. Singh sits on the throne, Mrs. Gandhi will wield the real power from behind.

In fact, never before has any nation elected or appointed as its head of government a foreign-born person belonging to a culture or religion different from that of its majority population. Even the ethnic Japanese Alberto Fujimori — elected president of Peru in 1990, only to be subsequently driven out of power (and the country) — was a second-generation Peruvian.

Mrs. Gandhi, who grew up in the small town of Orbassano near Turin, Italy, chose to become an Indian citizen in 1983, many years after her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi.

The recent high drama in New Delhi left an impression that her U-turn on becoming prime minister was linked to pressure from two quarters — concern for her safety on the part of her two adult children, and the renewed controversy raised by the defeated Hindu nationalists over her foreign origin.

Security considerations could not possibly have deterred her from assuming power because the Indian prime minister is one of the most protected individuals in the world. Nor is Mrs. Gandhi new to political controversy over her foreign roots. In fact, she told interviewers after the election results were announced that she found such controversy “funny” and inconsequential.

It appears that Mrs. Gandhi’s change of heart was a canny and calculated move tied to the current political realities, and her larger ambitions.

Despite the defeat of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government, the election produced no clear verdict, giving Mrs. Gandhi’s party only 145 lawmakers in the 545-seat lower House. Although several smaller parties are allied with the Congress party and India’s two communist parties pledged her their support, Mrs. Gandhi suffered two postelection setbacks.

First an important regional ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), and then the communists, decided not to join her proposed government but to extend issue-based support from outside.

Rather than dirty her hands by running a wobbly government, Mrs. Gandhi shrewdly decided to take a rain check. This maneuver fits well with her ambition to make her son, Rahul Gandhi, assume the mantle of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Mr. Gandhi still needs several years of political grooming before he can assume a leadership role within the party.

By opting out, Mrs. Gandhi has not only captured the moral high ground and boosted her popularity, she also eased concerns in the market and her political alliance. No sooner had she announced her decision than the stock market rallied and the DMK decided to join a Congress party-led government.

Mrs. Gandhi also calculated that if she can be the real power wielder in India even without being in the government, she should decline to be prime minister.

If Mr. Singh’s government performs well, the credit will go to Mrs. Gandhi. But if it founders, Mrs. Gandhi’s direct stewardship will be seen as indispensable to the stability of a new government.

Whatever happens, Mrs. Gandhi has put herself in a firm position to cash in on her political sacrifice in the future.

In the meantime, she will remain the supreme, unchallenged leader of the Congress party, which since Indian independence has been associated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

After Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi is the fourth member of India’s most-famous family to lead the party. But for the sympathy factor — following the assassinations of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi in 1984 by Sikh separatists and her late husband Rajiv in 1991 by Sri Lankan Tamil separatists — the dynasty probably would not have survived so long.

Although Sonia Gandhi has taken the wind out of the sails of her opponents by opting out, Hindu nationalists will still be unhappy. A predominantly Hindu India now has a Muslim president (who is a figurehead), a Sikh prime minister, and a foreign-born kingmaker who was raised a Roman Catholic.

Mrs. Gandhi will have to brace for the impending next line of attack against her — that she is an extra-constitutional authority wielding power without accountability to Parliament.

Brahma Chellaney, a former bureau chief for United Press International and correspondent with the Associated Press, is a professor at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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