Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

THE SUBCONTINENT: As India Prepares for Another Election the Parties Look for Charismatic Leaders

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

THE SUBCONTINENT: As India Prepares for Another Election the Parties Look for Charismatic Leaders

Article excerpt

THE SUBCONTINENT: As India Prepares for Another Election the Parties Look for Charismatic Leaders

A stable government has eluded India ever since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Minority governments formed through coalitions have proven to be short-lived. They remained hostage to the Congress Party, whose participation provided a majority for the coalition governments. This has been the cause of the collapse of the last two administrations of Dev Gowda and I.K. Gujral when, both times, Congress withdrew its support.

India is a vast country with a population of more than 900 million. It is almost a continent in itself with a multitude of distinct and separate ethnicities, religious beliefs, languages and political loyalties. In the northern hill tracts are various ethnic groups closely resembling those on the Chinese side of the Himalayas. Northern India contains the Aryan Hindi belt. In the south are dark-skinned Dravidians who speak Tamil, Telagu or Malayalam.

Most Indians are Hindus, but different deities are favored in different areas. By contrast, the caste system or its remnants that once prevailed throughout the nation have marginalized more than 50 percent of the population, who are considered disadvantaged by birth and therefore are deprived of social dignity and equal opportunity.

Muslims, who constitute between 10 and 12 percent of India's citizens, are spread across the country and in recent years have been sliding down the economic ladder, causing them to be exploited by Hindu-dominated political parties. Their interests appear to be with the large bloc of depressed or scheduled castes, the Harijans and the Dalits. Absence of national leadership in both those and the Muslim camps, however, have left them with little or no political leverage nationally. The dictum that all politics is local has never been more applicable to India than today.

Pre-election maneuverings show that no party was ready for mid-term elections, which suddenly were forced on the country by Congress Party politicking. When Congress chief Sita Ram Kesri threatened to withdraw Congress support from Gujral's United Front government, the 82-year-old politician was only hoping to have some of his regional agendas met and was not asking for fresh national elections. However, Kesri miscalculated.

Congress, which lacks a charismatic leader who can capture national attention and respect, was forced to reach out to Rajiv's widow, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, a private person who has been reluctant to enter politics. She has agreed to help but has refused to run personally for any seat, although Kesri has publicly said: "If she wants to be the Congress president, I will willingly vacate the office."

In fact, Congress is reaching out in search of all kinds of alliances, holy and unholy, to field winning candidates in the Feb.-March 1998 elections. Sonia is no Indira Gandhi, but she is the only card available to a desperate Congress, at least until Rajiv's and Sonia's children, daughter Priyanka and son Rahul, mature enough to become politicians themselves. Priyanka, however, at personal risk, is helping out her mother, Sonia. Mulayani Singh is trying to bring Yusuf Khan, alias Dilip Kumar, the legendary movie idol, on Congress' platform to attract the large Muslim vote. …

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