She Knows Her Onions

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ANTHONY SPAETHIndia has an enduring distrust of the outside world. In ancient times, Hindus were forbidden to cross the waters--to go abroad. That didn't stop the reverse traffic, however, and foreigners from the north, as well as others from the far reaches of Europe, conquered and colonized the subcontinent.As with many things subcontinental, though, India's xenophobia is complex and sometimes contradictory. The country's most recent saintly figure, Mother Teresa, was a source of national pride, although she was an Albanian-born Catholic. And now, following some significant churnings of the local political scene, the most likely next prime minister is another lady in a sari who speaks Hindi with an exotic accent: in this case, the ineradicable stacatto of northern Italy. Sonia Gandhi has never run for office or held a government post. The Congress Party she controls is packed with ambitious heavyweights vying for the prime ministership. Sonia is almost aggressively shy: she made her first political speech but 11 months ago and treats the press like a contagion. Her only obvious assets are her name and family--she was the daughter-in-law of one former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and is the widow of another, Rajiv--and a party that worships anyone with such a connection.Or so it seemed until local election returns last month proved that the enigmatic, asthmatic, stony-faced Sonia Gandhi has her finger on India's national pulse--and a firm headlock on her fractious party. In two states and the local legislature for the capital territory of Delhi, Congress candidates demolished their archrivals from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and that could be the beginning of the end for the BJP-led coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The eclipse of the BJP not only puts the Congress back in the sunshine, but has altered the destiny of Sonia Gandhi, 52, the architect of those electoral victories. It was assumed that she would never come forward as a prime minister, choosing to exert her power and influence from behind an anointed stand-in. That notion has been buried. The idea of a regency has never worked in India, insists a Congress leader. There's absolutely no question about it: she will be prime minister when the time comes.PAGE 1  |    |  
 
Sonia has benefited from, and cleverly exploited, a recent ironing out of India's complex national politics. The kaleidoscopic quality still exists: to gain power in India, one must simultaneously consider religious schisms, regional power centers, caste rivalries, conflicts between the rich and the poor and tightly interwoven strands of the modern and the deeply traditional. The BJP is one of the neatest symbols of that complexity: as a pro-Hindu party, it gathers public sympathy by antagonizing the country's Muslims and other minorities. (At the same time, it's known to be a party of the upper castes.) To prove its more-nationalistic-than-thou credentials, Vajpayee ordered tests of India's nuclear armory last May, only eight weeks after taking power.But in the succeeding six-and-a-half months, the BJP's performance has been nothing short of disastrous. The bomb tests, which were widely celebrated, are now perceived as the populist gimmick of a party worried about its shaky coalition government. Most significantly, the ruling party's faulty management of the national food distribution system resulted in a post-monsoon spiraling of vegetable prices, a political catastrophe in a nation where the bulk of the population is vegetarian either by choice or because they can't afford meat. Sonia campaigned on the high price of onions, a staple in Indian cooking and a political issue with a track record. Her beloved mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was propelled back into power in 1980 on that very issue.The most symbolically important election was in New Delhi, which is administered as a quasi-state. The BJP government there was booted out and Congress ushered in. Performance was the only real issue, not whether mosques should be destroyed or nuclear devices tested, and Sonia knew this better than the stalwarts surrounding her. In the second significant state election, in Madhya Pradesh, she insisted on supporting the incumbent Congress chief minister, Digvijay Singh, over the vociferous protests of the Old Guard. They said he wasn't popular. But Sonia knew the 51-year-old Singh had devolved power to local communities and built 20,000 new schools in his poverty-stricken state. His victory surprised the pollsters and almost everyone else--except her. It's Sonia who brought the focus back onto issues and programs, says Mani Shankar Aiyar, who once served as Rajiv's press aide. Before she took over, the Congress headquarters was like a coffee house, with leaders sitting around gossiping against each other.  |  2  |  
 
Sonia's first foray into active politics came in February, when she agreed to campaign for parliamentary candidates. She was popular on the stump, but the Congress didn't do very well in the following month's general election. The changes began when she wrested the presidency of the party away from Sitaram Kesri, an octogenarian wheeler-dealer. Under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress had become a rough mix of autocratic rule from the top with plentiful court intrigues among regional bigwigs protecting their own interests. That's what Sonia inherited last March. But in lieu of a purge, which could have produced powerful enemies or even a split in the Congress, she created fresh executive posts in the party and filled them with young loyalists. Then she talked tough. Her message to the regional potentates was quite clear, says a senior aide. If they continued with their games, she would throw them out. In September, she called a party conclave unlike any in recent memory. Around 200 top Congress members were encouraged to discuss the party's failings openly. Candor was encouraged, and the venue was symbolically chosen: a hill station called Panchmarhi, renowned from India's epic Mahabharata as the site at which the victorious Pandava family hatched a strategy to defeat the evil Kaurava clan. The main topic, of course, was how to overturn the BJP.The conclusion: the Congress had to woo back such minority groups as the Muslims and Sikhs--both badly alienated in the past 14 years--and concentrate on programs for the poor. Further liberalization of the Indian economy wasn't a priority. In fact, the economic policies of the last Congress government and former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh--who launched India on a program of reform that the BJP has tried, despite its nationalist rhetoric and with mixed success, to continue--were vociferously attacked, according to a participant. (A slowdown is in the making: India will be lucky if the economy grows 4.5% in the current fiscal year, compared to more than 6% last year, inflation has topped 8% and foreign investment has almost totally dried up.) Sonia Gandhi, though foreign-born and Western-educated, shows no eagerness to open India further to the outside world, especially if that could damage the popularity of her family's party. She has insisted in the past: I am a daughter of India, and has vowed to stay there till my last breath. Forget the accent, the maiden name (Maino) and the light hair: if she ever gets the chance and accepts it, Sonia Gandhi will be a very Indian prime minister.Reported by Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi  |    |  3