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Even Without Top Post, Sonia Gandhi Leaves Her Mark

by Ranjit Devraj

India's Election Results Confound Pollsters

(IPS) NEW DELHI -- When Sonia Gandhi led the Congress party to its resounding electoral win this month, she was laying to rest the ghosts of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that not only steered India to independence but fought for democracy, pluralism and religious secularism.

This she has achieved, despite her decision to turn down the prime ministership after she accepted on Saturday the leadership of the Congress party in Parliament.

That Sonia Gandhi's aim in fighting the elections was limited to defeating the ruling, pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sectarian politics was apparent enough in a rare, but remarkably candid, interview that the Italian-born custodian of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy gave to the NDTV 24x7 news channel weeks before the April/May election.

In the interview by Shekhar Gupta, chief editor of the 'Indian Express', Gandhi explained that what pushed her into politics -- after spending seven years as a recluse after the 1991 assassination of her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi -- was a sense of duty to the family she married into rather than any desire for personal power.

"I have photographs of my husband and my mother-in-law Indira Gandhi in my office. And each time I walked past those photographs, I felt I wasn't responding to my duty, the duty to this family and to the country."

Her family after all has given India three prime ministers -- Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her husband.

One reason given for her decision to back out is pressure from her son Rahul and her daughter Priyanka, who seriously feared for their mother's life and the possibility of the 'Nehru-Gandhi Curse' again overtaking the family like the fate of the Kennedy family in the United States.

On Tuesday, the veteran leader of the Communist Party of India -- Marxist (CPI-M) Jyoti Basu, who has been in close touch with Sonia Gandhi in the post-election period, revealed that "the children are saying 'we have lost our father and we don't want to lose our mother.'"

Added Basu, who served as the chief minister of West Bengal state for a record five terms: "India is a violent country. The children are afraid."

Pressure from the business community, which went into shock upon her selection, cannot be ruled out. Stock markets in India and elsewhere, which had swooned when she was picked, soon revived

The Nehru-Gandhis are a hard act for anyone to follow, least of all for someone who grew up in a remote Italian village like Orbassano in Turin, Italy and spent most of her life as a dutiful homemaker rarely seen in public despite being part of India's most powerful family.

It all began with Motilal Nehru, an eminent lawyer who threw open his palatial home in eastern Allahabad city to the Congress party, so that it could better lead India to independence from British rule in 1947.

But Motilal's best contribution was to send his only son Jawaharlal to Harrow in Britain in 1905 and later to Eton and Cambridge. This groomed him to become independent India's first prime minister and establish it as a modern, liberal, democratic republic that has survived in an Asian sea of fundamentalism, feudalism and obscurantist thought.

Jawaharlal Nehru did not have an easy time promoting what he called the "scientific temper."

He was constantly up against right-wing, Hindu fundamentalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which collaborated with the British and assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for championing religious secularism and egalitarianism in India's caste-ridden society.

Nehru banned the RSS, which critics call fascist and which went underground only to transform itself into a hydra-like entity.

Its many heads began to chip away at the Congress party, later to be led by his daughter Indira, who was to meet her own death at the hands of religious fundamentalists of another kind -- the Sikh bodyguards she trusted as part of her inner security.

A nation grieving at the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi, who had dominated the Indian political landscape for two decades, did not hesitate to give her charismatic son Rajiv an overwhelming three-fourths majority in parliament. But by 1989, he was bogged down by charges of corruption and the steadily advancing forces of religious fundamentalism.

Rajiv fell between the two stools trying to appease the mullahs who led India's large Muslim minority by giving in to their fundamentalist demands on personal law, while trying to appeal to the sentiments of majority Hindus by allowing them to perform ceremonies at the long-disputed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya.

When Rajiv was himself assassinated in 1991, ironically enough by Tamil militants fighting Sinhala chauvinism in neighbouring Sri Lanka, he left behind an India that had become a seething cauldron of intersecting caste, religious and other kinds of conflicting sectarianism.

Another sympathy wave in favor of the Congress party following Rajiv's assassination gave the party enough seats to form a minority government under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao.

But he proved helpless in preventing the demolition in 1992 of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists of the RSS and its political arm, the BJP, in attendance.

By 1998, the BJP had not only created a Hindu fundamentalist wave but also ridden it to the corridors of power.

It wasted no time serving notice of its right-wing, jingoistic credentials to the world by announcing that it had 'weaponised' a nuclear capability that the Congress party had chosen to keep under wraps since Indira Gandhi first exploded a nuclear device in 1974. BJP leaders let it be known that they wanted nothing short of a change in the constitution and possibly turning India into a 'Hindu Rashtra' or Hindu nation.

Pretty soon, the brothers of Nathuram Godse, the man who shot dead Mahatma Gandhi for similar reasons, surfaced and were being lionised and feted as heroes.

It was in such a state of affairs that Sonia Gandhi allowed herself to be persuaded to consider assuming the leadership of the Congress party, and helping to revive the values that it had always stood for under Nehru-Gandhi tutelage.

"I felt I was being cowardly to just sit and watch things deteriorate in the Congress for which my mother-in-law and the whole family lived and died. So at that point I took the decision," Sonia said in her television interview.

Sonia has often been accused of being politically naive, but in the interview she indicates she has no illusions as to the real agenda of the BJP and its allies. "We all know what their agenda (Hindu Rashtra) is. This is an agenda against which my family has fought, lived and died for -- this agenda, if carried out will divide our country," she said.

Little wonder then that the BJP has, during its election campaigns, zeroed in not only on the persona of Sonia Gandhi and her "foreign origins" but also on dynastic succession in Indian politics -- especially where the Nehru-Gandhi family was concerned.

That the BJP's real target was the Nehru-Gandhi family and not just Sonia became apparent when the Congress party announced that her son Rahul Gandhi, representing the next generation of the political dynasty, would contest the election. Pramod Mahajan, one of the BJP's most senior leaders and chief campaign manager, called a press conference to make the openly racial announcement that his party would only accept as candidate for the prime minister's job someone whose parents were both genetically Indian.

After the Indian electorate convincingly voted in favor of the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi's leadership, the BJP was reduced to histrionics and blackmail to prevent the prime ministership passing back to Nehru-Gandhi dynasty once again.

On Saturday, when the Congress party elected Sonia to be leader of the Congress party in Parliament, a step regarded as her anointment for the top job, she gracefully accepted to the utter dismay of BJP hardliners.

Sushma Swaraj, a senior member of the outgoing cabinet, vowed that the day Sonia was sworn in as prime minister, she and her husband would resign their seats in the Rajya Sabha or upper house of Parliament.

Swaraj vowed that to shave her head, wear white 'saris' -- widow's weeds in the Indian context -- and subsist on a simple diet as long as "that foreign woman" ruled.

Uma Bharti, BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, announced on Tuesday her resignation from office over the issue of a "foreigner ruling India."

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Albion Monitor May 22, 2004 (

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