Even Bollywood might hesitate at the story of a beautiful Italian girl who follows her prince to a faraway land to find love, tragedy and heartbreak before finally triumphing as the leader of her new people. And last week India seemed scarcely able to believe it either. Shocked-looking television anchors and pundits who for months had unanimously predicted Sonia Gandhi's imminent, disastrous defeat instead delivered news of a sensational election victory. Across the country, workers from her Congress Party experienced a moment of incredulous, speechless joy before erupting boisterously in thousands of spontaneous festivals. Outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had been so confident of a second term that he called for the election six months early, announced his resignation to the nation and grumpily praised the "strong and diverse" democracy that rudely dumped him from power. Most dazed of all, inside her colonial bungalow in New Delhi, was India's new leader. Friends said that on the day of the results, the 57-year-old Sonia was too nervous to turn on her TV. But after they called to congratulate her, she spent all day sitting quietly in her living room, watching reports of her win over and over, and gazing with a bemused smile at a portrait on the wall of her husband Rajiv and another of her mother-in-law Indira. Stepping out for the briefest of evening press conferences, Sonia agreed with a reporter—almost as if the possibilities of power were dawning on her for the first time—that it was indeed "normally the case" that the leader of the largest party in India's Parliament became Prime Minister. Two days later senior Congress officials nominated Sonia for the post, and she awaited only the seeming formality of an invitation by India's ceremonial President to form a new government.
Sonia's victory is the crowning triumph of a remarkable political career. Born in the village of Orbassano, outside Turin, Sonia Maino was an 18-year-old language student when, in 1965, she met Rajiv Gandhi in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge, England, where he was an undergraduate. "His eyes were so beautiful," she said in an interview with the Indian press earlier this year. "It was a feeling inside that this perhaps is the person you have been looking for, love at first sight. And it was mutual." The couple married in New Delhi three years later and at first steered clear of politics. But in the 1980s and '90s, a succession of tragedies drew her inexorably into what has been, since before Jawaharlal Nehru helped India win its independence, the first family's business. The death of Indira's son Sanjay in a plane crash in 1980 prompted Rajiv to take his place as his mother's political heir. He succeeded her as Prime Minister in 1984, when Indira's Sikh bodyguards shot her dead in her garden in revenge for a bloody crackdown on Sikh militancy.
On the day Indira died, Sonia predicted politics would also claim her husband. "We were at the Medical Institute," she later recalled. "I had taken my mother-in-law there. Her body was lying by our side. I opposed him. I literally begged him. I said he too would be killed. I was right." When a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv in May 1991, the grief-stricken Sonia refused entreaties to replace him as the head of the dynasty. But by 1997, with Congress floundering, the same two expectant faces that last week watched over her win had somehow persuaded her to follow them into political life. "You see those two photographs?" she once said to a reporter. "I just couldn't walk past them without feeling like a coward." By claiming power after 15 long years in the wilderness, her 33-year-old son Rahul declared last week, the Gandhi dynasty was finally laying its ghosts to rest: "I've seen her fight the day my grandmother died. I've seen her fight the day my father died. And she has won. My mother is my hero."
Sonia's victory is not just a fairy tale come true. It's a personal vindication after endless jibes about her foreign birth and her years as a housewife. For supporters of Congress, it also represents a resurrection of secular India after years of rule by Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during which Hindu intolerance of Muslims seemed in danger of being officially condoned. (No one has ever been convicted, for example, for the 2002 riots in Gujarat in which some 2,000 Muslims perished.) But the hard reality of office might make Sonia wish it were all a dream. Last week's vote was more a rejection of the BJP than any great endorsement of Congress. And the issues that ended the reign of the grand old man of Indian politics are set to become more urgent; now, however, they are Congress's problems.
On the face of it, Vajpayee, 79, and his government had everything going for them. The economy was on fire, rocketing by 10.4% in the last quarter of 2003. The country's IT industry, accused in Europe and the U.S. of siphoning jobs away, was enabling growing numbers of Indians to attain middle-class status. Vajpayee was talking peace with Pakistan about the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, over which the two countries had fought two wars. India's cricketers had beaten Pakistan. In all, India, said the BJP campaign ads, was "shining." And so, as the pro-BJP newspaper the Pioneer mourned in a front-page headline the morning after the result: WHY?
The answer can be found in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Their respective capitals, Hyderabad and Bangalore, have become bywords for India's bid to conquer the world of IT and outsourcing. Yet the Chief Ministers of both states were handed the worst political defeats of the election. In Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu saw the number of his party's parliamentary seats slashed from 29 to just 5 and its representation in the state assembly plunge from 180 seats to 45. In Karnataka, S.M. Krishna resigned after his party won just 8 of its previous 28 Parliament seats and just more than a quarter of the state assembly's.
Their defeats did not have anything to do with party politics—Naidu leads the Telugu Desam Party, which is allied to the BJP, while Krishna is a Congress man. But while the transformation of Hyderabad and Bangalore into shining showcases of business parks, Internet cafés and call centers may have delighted the managers of IBM and Microsoft, it failed to impress the overwhelming majority of Indian voters who still live on the land. This resentment goes deeper than the usual imbalance in developing economies between town and country. In southern India, the income gap is tragic. While surveys of spending show software technicians and back-office workers are consuming 12% more every year through eating out, buying the latest TVs, hanging out in Bangalore's bars and shopping for Hyderabad's famous pearls, thousands of poverty-stricken farmers have killed themselves. In the Andhra Pradesh market town of Anantapur alone, more than 2,000 have committed suicide since 1997. Nor are such contrasts confined to these two states. In the prosperous southwest of India, average incomes are 10 times higher than those in the hardscrabble northeast. And while the IT industry drives much of India's growth, it employs just 800,000 people. That's a figure dwarfed by a nationwide work force of 363 million, a jobless total of 35 million, and the 83 million residents of India's poorest state, Bihar, where more than half the population cannot read or write and where some 40%, like 370 million other Indians, live on $1 or less a day. In the dirt-poor Bihari city of Chapra, rickshaw driver Suryanarayan Pandey, 30, dismisses the very idea of politicians trying to change the persistent poverty around him. "Those born poor in this land die poor in this land," he says.
Economists agree that unemployment and inequality are India's most pressing problems. They add that the situation is likely to deteriorate. With population growth of 2%, or 20 million more Indians a year, notes Mahesh Vyas of the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the country needs to create anywhere from 75 million to 150 million jobs in the next seven years just to ensure the unemployment rate stays stable. That, he adds, would also require a minimum annual GDP growth of 10%. "You'd have to say the probability is that things won't work out," says Vyas dryly. As Naidu told TIME: "There's only so much you can do."
Sociologists and security experts predict rising social tension and violence in India. Discontent is already showing in a rash of attacks on tea-estate managers in the eastern part of the country, the killing of more than 50 migrant workers in Assam last November and a near-total breakdown of law and order in Bihar, where kidnapping for ransom is a growth industry. Several thousand left-wing guerrillas from the Maoist Communist Center and People's War Group now rule a swath of territory in eastern and central India and have vowed to reverse "World Bank, pro-globalization" economic policies. Last October, they narrowly failed to assassinate Naidu when they detonated a clutch of land mines under his car, an act that earned them the description of "largest single internal security challenge after terrorism in Kashmir" by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management and a terrorist listing by the U.S. State Department. "There is poverty," says the institute's executive director Ajai Sahni, "and there is rising affluence in the cities. So, yes, there is violence and, yes, it will grow."
Domestic unrest will not be Sonia's only burden. Away from home, she must contend with delicate peace talks with Pakistan. Vajpayee began negotiating with Islamabad over Kashmir. And as the drama of India's election result unfolded, its potential ramifications caused almost as much shock in the Pakistani capital as in New Delhi. "We had an understanding with the BJP government," Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri told TIME. Still, he also indicated his government can work with Congress: "Peace is a must to eliminate poverty in both countries. So there is no need to worry. Nobody wants to miss this opportunity."
But the opportunity may already be slipping away. A declaration last month by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, leader of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba, that "jihad" was the only "road map" for Kashmir, gave weight to recent predictions by Indian intelligence of an escalation in violence this summer. Moreover, with neither nation willing to give up their claim to the divided region, says one Western diplomat, "sooner or later, the process is going to reach a dead end." With the BJP in opposition, Sonia may be forced to take a tougher line with Pakistan to avoid charges that she is not selling out India. "Sonia has to be more Indian than the average Indian," says Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, "more nationalistic than Vajpayee."
Perhaps most crucially, Sonia must decide what sort of leader she will be. Vajpayee's forgetfulness raised eyebrows during the election campaign—in one speech he forgot the poll date, the assembly it concerned and the name of the candidate, his own niece—as did his admission that he announced the peace process on a whim while making a speech in Kashmir. But Sonia succeeds a man who nevertheless commanded widespread respect for this same habit of reaching out in unexpected directions, as well as his skillful handling of coalition politics. She, on the other hand, has no experience of government, has never articulated what her economic or foreign policy might be and is handicapped by what even friends call a "crippling shyness" that was all too obvious at her victory press conference. While her decision to enter politics displayed a stubborn courage, she has failed to tackle her only reformist challenge to date—that of remaking a Congress paralyzed by bureaucratic inefficiency, disorganization and a culture of self-regarding, pompous factionalism. "She's never set out any clear policy arguments or set of ideas," says Chellaney. "She's surrounded by these fossilized old Congress has-beens, and her sole belief was always that she only had to wait for the BJP to make a mistake and she'd win."
Few politicians ever duplicate the high of their first big win. For Sonia, the challenges of the next few months will be daunting, for she will have to confront some of the toughest questions—how to secure the gains of economic reform while satisfying the poor; how to make peace with Pakistan over Kashmir—that have ever confronted India. Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from the election is that Indian governments lose popularity quickly. India is the world's most populous democracy, but in a nation where politicians are widely regarded as self-serving and corrupt, voting often boils down to a chance for revenge. So it was that in last week's poll: the BJP lost as badly in the big cities of New Delhi and Mumbai, where it finds its natural support base among the urban élite, as it did in the countryside. "As reform pulls more Indians above the poverty line," Indian Express editor in chief Shekhar Gupta wrote, "they are moving their expectations higher. The voter is more unforgiving, demanding, tougher to fool. It requires something extraordinary to blunt his compulsive rejection of the incumbent." India, in other words, is an impatient place; it can't wait to be great. After seeing her own fantasy become extraordinary, unbelievable fact, Sonia now faces the task of making a billion others' dreams come true.