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Friday, May 21, 2004

Gandhi a double winner

Her calculated volte-face can only boost her power

Special to The Japan Times

NEW DELHI -- The upset election result in India has come with an unparalleled spectacle of the winning alliance leader deciding, on second thoughts, to be the kingmaker rather than the king.

In the process, the Roman Catholic, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi has positioned herself in a win-win situation. By first getting her party lawmakers and allied parties to support her bid to be prime minister and then, three days later, deciding not to take the top job in the world's largest democracy, Gandhi has won many hearts and put herself in a firm position to cash in on her sacrifice in the future.

The high drama in New Delhi left an impression that Gandhi's U-turn was linked to pressure from two quarters -- her two adult children, supposedly concerned about her safety; and the defeated Hindu nationalists, who had raked up controversy anew over her foreign origin. In reality, however, Gandhi's volte-face appears a canny, calculated move.

It took her a few days to make up her mind because she never expected the election result to throw up an opportunity for her Congress Party to form a coalition government.

There are several reasons why Gandhi has decided to be the power behind the throne, rather than on the throne herself.

The election, despite the defeat of the Hindu nationalist-led government, produced no clear verdict, giving her Congress Party only 145 lawmakers in the 545-seat ruling lower House of Parliament.

Although several smaller parties are allied with the Congress Party and the two Communist parties pledged her support post-election, Gandhi suffered two setbacks in rapid succession in recent days: First an important regional ally, the DMK party, and then the Communists decided not to join her proposed government but to extend issue-based support from outside.

Rather than head a shaky government buffeted by pressure from outside allies and unable to deliver on its election promises, Gandhi decided shrewdly to stay Mrs. Clean and take a rain check.

This maneuver fits well with Gandhi's ambition to make her son, Rahul Gandhi, assume the mantle of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Rahul Gandhi still needs several years of political grooming before he can assume a leadership role within the party.

Moreover, Gandhi calculated that when she can be the real power wielder in India even without being in the government, she should decline to be the prime minister.

Gandhi is the supreme, unchallenged leader of the Congress Party, an organization that has since independence been associated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. After Jawaharlal Nehru, his 1daughter, Indira Gandhi, and Indira's son, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi is the fourth member of India's most-famous family to the party chief.

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.

Such is the present power of Sonia Gandhi over the party that she will dictate not only the choice of the prime minister in her place but also of the other important members of the Cabinet.

Security considerations could not possibly have deterred her from assuming power because the Indian prime minister is one of the most protected individuals in the world.

Nor is Gandhi new to political controversy over her foreign roots. In fact, just last weekend, she told interviewers that she found such controversy "funny" and inconsequential.

Having now taken the wind out of the sails of her opponents, Gandhi has to brace for the impending next line of attack against her: an extra-constitutional authority that wields power without accountability to Parliament.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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