Sorry, Mrs. Gandhi, but It Looks Like Arrivederci

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In the end it was a game of one-on-one, and Sonia Gandhi never saw the ball. India's month-long election ended Sunday with the ruling Hindu nationalist Baharatiya Janata party set to strengthen its majority. In what looks like a crushing blow to the vaunted Gandhi political dynasty, exit polls pointed to the BJP block collecting around 300 parliamentary seats compared with a little over 150 for Mrs. Gandhi's Congress party and its allies. In an election where no significant policy issues were at stake, Congress had hoped the allure of the Gandhi name would restore its fortunes. Although the BJP mercilessly beat the drum of her foreign birth — she's the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — what may have counted more tellingly against her was the BJP's record and the timing of the poll. Last year Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had rallied the nation behind his government when it tested its first nuclear weapons; then he did the same early in the summer by ejecting Pakistan-backed guerrillas from the Kargil region of Kashmir. And the early election wasn't brought about by popular discontent; the BJP government lost its majority when a controversial actress at the head of regional party had quit the coalition after Vajpayee refused to shield her from corruption charges — a situation that engendered sympathy for the BJP among the meager 56 percent of voters who bothered to go to the polls.

So does Sonia's electoral humiliation spell the end of the Gandhi dynasty? Not likely. In many ways, hers had been something of a caretaker candidacy by a Gandhi no one had expected to go into politics. The true heir to the Nehru-Gandhi throne is Sonia and Rajiv's twentysomething daughter, Priyanka, who was easily the most charismatic thing about her mother's campaign. But unlike her predecessors, she may have to cut her political teeth in opposition rather than in power.