Why Gandhi's Exit Is Good for India

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Sonia Gandhi's surprise decision to resign as a member of parliament leaves the world's biggest representative democracy in the hands of two leaders, Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who technically don't represent anyone. If that sounds like a strange system of government, this is even stranger. Rather than bad for Indian politics, many in India fed up with corruption and venality as usual would argue that Gandhi and Singh are the best thing to happen to it in a long time.

Gandhi remains leader of the Congress Party and the ruling Congress-led coalition, but stepped down as MP for the northern Indian district of Rae Bareli on Thursday to deflect opposition allegations that her chairmanship of a government think-tank broke parliamentary conflict-of-interest rules. Singh, meanwhile, is an unelected economist appointed by Gandhi herself almost two years ago after she recorded a surprise win in India's general election but declined the top job because of nationalist protests against her immigrant roots.

During his two years in office, Singh's integrity has come to be viewed as beyond reproach. And on Thursday Gandhi — who repeatedly refused the party leadership after her husband Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 and has now given up power twice in as many years — said she was stepping down because it was "the right thing to do" in a situation where "some people have been trying to create an atmosphere as if government and parliament are being used only to favor me."

Stunned opposition parties anticipating a long and loud campaign against Gandhi tried to claim they forced her hand. But their crowing sounded hollow, and hypocritical: only one of 43 other MPs accused of breaking the same rules on conflict of interest agreed to follow Gandhi's example and also step down. "Once again she's shown she is the one person to whom power genuinely does not mean anything," said Hindustan Times editorial director Vir Sanghvi. "Whatever authority she has derives from that morality."

The contrast Gandhi and Singh cut with the typical Indian politician is striking. India regularly comes in the bottom half of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Moldova and Mali at 88th out of 158 countries last year. This January, in its Mood of the Nation issue, the weekly newsmagazine India Today found less than half of those surveyed expressed any trust in their MPs. So low is India's opinion of its political leaders, in fact, that a new college, the M.I.T. School of Government, opened last September in the central city of Pune with the aim of producing a bright new generation of Indian politicians. But until they can deliver on that ambitious goal, it seems that the most respected politicians in India, like Gandhi and Singh, won't be politicians at all.