Sonia Gandhi has dramatically revived the fortunes of the Congress party. But right now the country needs the shock of the new, not more of the same
The result of the world's biggest general election, which could change the course of Indian politics for a generation, should be known next week, when the votes cast by more than 300 million Indians - half the electorate - will have been counted. It is an election that offers a stark, though far from simple choice.
Do voters want to break the mould of India's 50 years of independence by electing the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party? Briefly in power for ten days in 1996, the BJP would run a strong coalition government that would push economic liberalisalion, albeit with a mildly protectionist slant, and tackle critical areas such as public sector reform and infrastructure.
Or will they go for a Congress party that has dominated Indian politics for most of the past half-century, but which has declined rapidly since the 1970s, losing its historic role as the "mother" party that brought stability and security to people, rich and poor, across the country? The Congress manifesto speaks in favour of opening up the economy, but a vote for Congress is really a vote for reviving the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Congress would lead an unhappy coalition with smaller communist and regional parties that make up the outgoing United Front government.
At first glance the answer looks simple: dump Congress, which has lost its way and is tarnished by corrupt politicians who have little interest in policy or in serving their country. Also, steer away its potential partners, the caste-based regional parties that have sprung up recently in north India but have done little for their downtrodden followers. Then give the BJP a chance to set new standards of sound government: it is energetic, well organised and relatively clean (though it has recently lost some of this reputation in states where it has run regional governments).
But the answer is not so straightforward because the BJP is firmly rooted in chauvinistic "cultural nationalism" based on India's majority Hindu religion, which covers 84 per cent of the population of 960 million. The BJP contains a nasty undercurrent of hard-line extremists, whose policies would stir up the country's ever-incendiary communal tensions. The party's manifesto talks about generating a "higher level of patriotism" and an "extra-political moral order". The party also wants India to become a nuclear state.
If there were a "new BJP", led by a young Indian Tony Blair who had shaken off the party's Hindu extremist legacy, there would be no contest: the party would win by a landslide. But it hasn't: its leaders are mostly in their seventies and though they are adopting a moderate face, there are activists in the wings who wear khaki shorts to early morning Nazi-style parades.
On the other hand, Congress (and most of the regional parties) follows India's secular traditions that embrace the country's many castes and religions and Congress has a relatively open and pragmatic view of the world. Also, it has broken its own generation gap with the emergence of the 51-year-old Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (who was assassinated in the 1991 general election campaign), together with their daughter and son, Priyanka and Rahul, both still in their twenties. It was Rajiv's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India to independence as its first prime minister in 1947, inaugurating a 38-year period of family rule.
Such political dynasties have often established themselves in newly independent countries and are sometimes recalled by popular demand when voters tire of newer self-seeking and corrupt politicians. The Bhuttos in Pakistan are not to be written off yet, despite current corruption allegations, any more than the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, two families in Bangladesh …