The Face of Reform

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At least 18 people have committed suicide in the village of Potaram in the past two years, mostly impoverished farmers unable to repay debts to moneylenders. Here in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, farmers have enjoyed few of the fruits of India's much heralded boom. But on April 20, the 800 or so villagers of Potaram had a chance to vent their anger at the polls, and they voted overwhelmingly to give the Congress Party and an ally control of the state assembly and most of the state's 42 seats in the national Parliament. Their votes helped secure a stunning victory for Sonia Gandhi and Congress in India's general elections. Yet days after the results were announced, the news still hadn't reached many of the rural voters responsible for her triumph. "Will Sonia become Prime Minister?" asks Kumari Satamma, a 58-year-old villager, surprised and excited. She praises Gandhi's mother-in-law, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, while neighbors nod in agreement. "We had more food and better clothes then," one woman remembers. Says Satamma: "Sonia is Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law. She'll take care of farmers and the poor."

Now, however, the people of Potaram must grapple with a new and equally startling development in this remarkable election: it's not Gandhi but a quiet, self-effacing technocrat who will be their next Prime Minister. On May 18, Gandhi announced that she would follow an "inner voice" and renounce the post of Prime Minister. Her decision cleared the way for her handpicked nominee, Manmohan Singh, a former Finance Minister, to fill her place. Many commentators interpreted Gandhi's move as a political masterstroke that neutralized the ousted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had vociferously questioned her capacity to rule because of her Italian birth. The stock market, which had plunged earlier in the week, immediately soared on hopes that the new government would be more stable under Singh than it ever could have been under Gandhi.

Even though she won't be India's next Prime Minister, Gandhi will continue to be a driving force behind the new administration. "She'll be the guide," says Kamal Nath, a Congress member of Parliament. Indeed, Gandhi will not only stay on as the Congress president, but will also lead the party in Parliament—both posts are usually held by the Prime Minister. Still, the country's future now rests primarily on Singh, who comes to the job with an unprecedented rèsumè. He is an Oxford-trained economist and a Sikh (not a Hindu)—both firsts for an Indian Prime Minister.

Singh, a former governor of India's reserve bank, made the transition to politics late in his life, and some believe he has never been fully comfortable with the switch. But his credibility as an economic reformer is unmatched: in 1991, as Finance Minister, he began the process of opening up the economy to competition and foreign investment. A cool-headed, analytical thinker with a fondness for Urdu poetry, he is trusted by the Gandhi family for his loyalty and is respected across the political spectrum. "He upholds integrity, transparency and the idea that the given word must be kept," says former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Last Thursday, in his first major press conference since the election, Singh emphasized that his priority will be "to wage the battle against poverty ... We need reforms but with a human face." India's economy has never been stronger, with growth of up to 7% expected this fiscal year. But the boom—driven by tax cuts, privatization of state industries and cutting red tape—has been narrow, failing to help most of the 650 million Indians who live off the land. In Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, outgoing chief minister Chandrababu Naidu wooed numerous tech companies, transforming the city into a dynamic business center—yet many of the state's rural areas have had a wrenching time. In Potaram, the rains have failed for four years in a row, causing many farmers to take desperate measures. Balayya, a 30-year-old farmer in the village, borrowed $1,100 to have a borehole dug but found no water, so he spent another $1,100 on a second hole. After that, too, turned out to be dry, Balayya hanged himself in his house last year. His sister, Balarajavva, says she voted against Naidu: "He did nothing for us, only for those in the cities. We're happy that he's gone."

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