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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Why India accepts a foreign-born leader

NEW DELHI -- The world's largest-ever election in India has produced the biggest upset, bringing to power a foreign-born woman leader, Sonia Gandhi, and radically transforming Indian politics.

Imagine a Latino or a Muslim or a woman from overseas becoming president of the United States. That scenario seems improbable, given the fact that the U.S. presidency has always been a Christian white male preserve. It is equally implausible that Japan or Italy would elect a person of foreign ethnicity as its prime minister.

So, how does one explain the rise to power of a Roman Catholic, Italian-born woman in the world's largest democracy, India -- a predominantly Hindu nation that already has a Muslim president?

Gandhi's ascendance as head of the new government makes her the real power wielder in India, in charge of the destiny of more than one billion citizens. She is the first woman in world history to have her finger on the nuclear button in a self-declared nuclear-weapons state.

Not only is she the first non-Hindu, foreign-born prime minister of India, her rise to power is also unparalleled internationally. Never before has any nation elected or appointed as the head of its government a foreign-born man or woman belonging to a culture or religion different from that of its majority population. Even the ethnic Japanese Alberto Fujimori -- elected president of Peru in 1990, only to be subsequently driven out of power (and the country) -- was a second-generation Peruvian.

The ready and easy explanation for the extraordinary turn in India is that Sonia Gandhi, who grew up in a small town near Turin in Italy and became an Indian citizen after marriage, is no ordinary mortal but part of the charismatic Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has governed India for 37 of its 56 years since independence. After Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and Indira's son, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi is the fourth member of India's most-famous family to be elected prime minister. But for the sympathy factor arising from the assassinations of two of its members -- Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi (Sonia Gandhi's husband) in 1991 -- the dynasty probably would not have survived for so long.

The Congress Party has split several times since 1969 due to internal dissensions over the dynastic hold, but each time the faction led by a Nehru-Gandhi family member has eventually emerged as the real Congress Party.

The deeper explanation for Sonia Gandhi's ascendance has to do with the peculiar nature of India's society and its unusual history.

India is a land of sharp contrasts. Although conservative, Indian society -- a melting pot for different races and cultures for centuries -- is also liberal and accommodating in some respects. Although gender equality does not match Western standards, the centrality of Mother Goddess in Hindu thinking has opened political doors for women, with governments in three large Indian states and in Delhi currently headed by women. And although intensely proud, Indians are not at all xenophobic.

In its history, India was repeatedly attacked by foreign invaders from the time of Alexander the Great. Afghan, Persian and Central Asian invaders set themselves as rulers in Delhi. The end of British rule closed nearly a millennium of foreign domination and reign over India.

But long before it began falling prey to foreign conquest, India had nurtured cultural and economic interaction with distant lands. With its wealth of philosophy, respect for life in all its manifestations, compassion and tolerance, India had since ancient times built a heritage as a benign and assimilative civilization.

Being a foreigner has rarely been a disadvantage in India. And being a foreign woman has been distinctly advantageous, if one looks at the number of women from overseas who played a role in India's independence and cultural movements. Even after independence, there have been examples of foreign women wielding clout in Indian society, including Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian who became famous as the "Saint of the Gutters" of Calcutta, and the Frenchwoman known reverentially as "The Mother who created Auroville," the international spiritual hub of the devotees of philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

In the hullabaloo over the rise of Sonia Gandhi, it has been overlooked that she is not even the first woman from Europe to head the Congress Party. In fact, Sonia Gandhi is the third European woman to be Congress Party president, the first being Annie Besant who led the party when Mahatma Gandhi (not related to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty) was cutting his political teeth in India.

While members of the defeated Bharatiya Janata Party still seek to make an issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins, the reality is that the Congress Party has a redoubtable history of turning to foreigners for leadership. Having been founded in 1885 under the inspiration of Englishman Allan Octavian Hume, the Congress Party today has come full circle, elevating another person from Europe as prime minister of India.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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