Royal Return; Sonia's Unexpected Victory Has Restored the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty of Old. but If Congress Is to Fulfill Its Mandate, It Must Open Up the Economy Even Further

By Mazumdar, Sudip; Moreau, Ron | Newsweek International, May 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

Royal Return; Sonia's Unexpected Victory Has Restored the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty of Old. but If Congress Is to Fulfill Its Mandate, It Must Open Up the Economy Even Further


Mazumdar, Sudip, Moreau, Ron, Newsweek International


Byline: Sudip Mazumdar and Ron Moreau

Sonia Gandhi never harbored great expectations for this election. In 1999 the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, who had only reluctantly allowed herself to be dragged into politics the year before, had presided over her party's worst electoral defeat, in elections that brought Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee back to power. But by 10 a.m. last Thursday, only three hours after the vote count had begun, all signs suggested that this shy--some say reclusive--leader was about to lead Congress to its most dramatic political upset since independence in 1947. Huddled in front of the television with her staff at her New Delhi home as the poll returns rolled in, she was herself taken by surprise, sources said later. By noon Vajpayee and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had accepted defeat, and for the first time in 20 years, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had led the party to victory. On Saturday Sonia's party elected her as its candidate for prime minister. "We have succeeded against all odds, prevailed despite all predictions of disaster," she told supporters in the company of her two children, Rahul, 33, and Priyanka, 32. "There is now a momentum generated by our revival, let us not squander it." The royals had returned.

Still, if India's stunning election results are a lesson in anything, it's democracy, not dynasty. During Vajpayee's five years in office, India made impressive economic strides, and began a crucial peace process with archenemy Pakistan. But the BJP's much ballyhooed "feel-good factor" that stemmed from the growth in high-tech industries, a middle-class consumer boom and the relaxation of tensions with Islamabad simply did not touch the lives of the country's tens of millions of urban and rural poor. To the contrary, the signs of progress--the IT parks, the McDonald's, the flashy new cars--made the rich-poor divide only more acute, especially for those on the losing end. "Drought-stricken farmers contemplating suicide are not impressed with technology towers and jobs for university graduates," says Dipankar Gupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University. It's a point not lost on Congress. "The first priority of the new government... must be to tackle rural poverty," says Manmohan Singh, a former, and possibly future, Congress Finance minister. "This is the inescapable lesson of the election."

That's what worries many middle- and upper-class Indians, not to mention outside investors. To truly improve the lives of India's legions of poor, the new Congress-led coalition government will likely have to push ahead with the painful economic reforms that most analysts credit with India's recent robust growth. That's how China has expanded its economic boom to include more and more citizens, thus forestalling social unrest. Yet it's also true that Beijing does not have to heed the voice of the poor in the way that New Delhi does, and many fear that an inexperienced leader like Sonia will be all too tempted to make the kind of short-term concessions that will soothe voters but cripple the economy in the long term. Is she up to the task? Party members naturally say yes, but base their optimism on fairly thin evidence. "Even her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was an inexperienced, sheltered, diffident woman when she took the reins of the party in the mid-'60s," says a top Congress leader. "And we all know what a great leader she turned out to be."

More critical may be the fact that while Sonia may be prime minister, her economic policies will be in the hands of others. Singh, the architect of India's initial economic liberalization in the early 1990s, may take up the same post again. Beside him, the Congress boasts a stable of bright, experienced and highly respected economic reformers such as another former Finance minister, P. …

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