By SOMINI SENGUPTA–
NEW DELHI – Eleven years ago, when she took over as president of India’s oldest political party, Sonia Gandhi was seen as India’s most improbable politician: a foreigner with a shaky command of Hindi, reclusive to the point of seeming aloof, a wife who had fought to keep her husband from joining politics and who lost him to an assassination.
Today, Mrs. Gandhi, 62, is credited with having scored a stunning political coup. Her Indian National Congress party made its best performance in 25 years in the parliamentary elections completed last week, picking up 205 of 543 seats on its own, and with its coalition partners coming only 12 seats shy of an outright majority. All it needs to do now to form a government is stitch up alliances with a handful of independents and small parties.
No longer would it be beholden to the many small party bosses that it needed during the first five-year term a Congress-led coalition was in office. Most important, for the sake of foreign and economic policy, it would no longer have to rely on India’s Communist parties to stay in power, as it had for most of that time.
“Cong Gets Free Hand,” screamed the front-page banner headline in The Times of India on Sunday. It featured a photograph of Mrs. Gandhi dressed in a red-ochre sari, ushering the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to a podium to address the news media.
Meghnad Desai, an Indian-born economist and a member of the British House of Lords, went as far as to compare her to Catherine the Great, the powerful German-born empress of Russia.
Mrs. Gandhi is the Italian-born wife of the slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of the prime minister before him, Indira Gandhi. She is known for rarely giving interviews, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.
She has said she joined politics to save the legacy of the party, which her husband’s family has been associated with since before independence. “I had to accustom myself to the public gaze, which I found intrusive and hard to endure,” she said in a speech at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands two years ago.
Critics say she is simply paving the way for her son, Rahul, 38, who is expected to take a cabinet post in the new government. The party’s often-slavish devotion to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, perhaps its biggest albatross, was evident over the weekend.
On Saturday evening, hours after the election results signaled the victory of the Congress-led coalition, a party leader and minister assigned to Mr. Singh’s office, Prithviraj Chavan, declared on television that Mr. Gandhi could become prime minister whenever he wished. This was after Mrs. Gandhi and her son had repeatedly endorsed Mr. Singh as the party’s choice for the top post.
The Congress landslide was all the more remarkable because it defied an Indian tradition of anti-incumbency. The Congress-led coalition, which routed the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004, was not only re-elected but it picked up 57 seats.
Students of Indian politics pointed to several factors.
First, under Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress-led coalition homed in on the rural poor. During its first term, buoyed by robust economic growth, it used record government revenues to increase social spending, not just raising health and education budgets, but also starting an ambitious public works program in the countryside and a costly loan repayment waiver for farmers.
Second, she masterly cast herself as a leader who relinquished power, turning down her party’s appeals to become prime minister, first in 2004 and again this time. Instead, she chose the soft-spoken economist, Mr. Singh, and between them, they divvied up the job: she took care of the hard-knuckles politics of keeping the coalition together, while he served as the chief executive, albeit one who was always seen as subservient.
“She remade him,” said Mr. Desai, a longtime friend of the prime minister. “This victory is as much due to him as to her. He has made dynasty palatable.”
During the election season, the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to portray the prime minister as weak. It accused his government of being ineffective against a spate of terrorist attacks and unable to tackle a worldwide economic crisis, which is beginning to be felt here.
The opposition strategy did not pay off. Its coalition trailed with 159 seats, while a third alliance, spearheaded by Communists, won fewer than 80 seats.
Even with a free hand, the Congress-led government will face formidable challenges. India needs to swiftly build roads, highways and power plants; improve public schools and build universities for a swelling young population; and hire nurses and doctors for its feeble public health system.
Most of all, it needs to address its abiding poverty. Despite over a decade of high economic growth in India, 300 million people remain below the poverty line. Large tracts of the country are racked by a Maoist insurgency. And for the first time in years, growth rates have dipped sharply and the deficit has ballooned.
Whether the new administration will fast-track economic reforms, as many business leaders urge, is questionable. Congress politicians, executives and analysts are already tempering expectations.
Kapil Sibal, a Congress member of Parliament from Delhi, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that he expected the new administration to “send a signal” that it would advance reforms that had been stalled during the past five years but would make no “sudden shift” in policies. It would be unrealistic to expect labor law reform in a country with no safety net to speak of, he said, or to expect a greater openness in the banking and insurance sectors in the face of the global financial crisis.
Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys, one of the country’s largest technology companies, said Sunday that the government’s immediate priorities should be to raise economic growth and enact a broad set of reforms “that will widen access to both opportunities and public services.”
“We need reforms in higher education, we need reforms in empowering our cities, we need reforms in national security,” he said. “Reforms will cover a diverse set of issues, unencumbered by allies holding them back.”
Not least, Congress will have to keep its promise to the rural poor. Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, campaigned on a pledge to expand the public jobs program and deepen food subsidies for the poor.
Mother and son face a crucial political challenge as well: how to open access to a party that critics compare to a family-owned company. Mr. Gandhi has been most explicit in calling for internal party democracy. He says he can make that kind of demand because he is a Gandhi.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
source: The New York Times