Sat, 03 Apr 2004

Assessing chances of the Gandhi family returning to power in India

Siddharth Srivastava, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

Countrywide opinion polls tell us that Indian voters seem convinced that Atal Behari Vajpayee is the most eligible to be prime minister. But Vajpayee is 80, and the question is bound to be asked: Who after him?

In this context, news that Rahul Gandhi, 34, will finally stand for Parliament is a significant development. General elections are slated for next month, with a new government expected in place by May.

Rahul's lineage is impeccable -- great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi all former prime ministers. Rahul's mother is Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president, opposition leader and prime ministerial aspirant confronting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

No announcement has yet been made on whether Rahul's younger sister by a couple of years, Priyanka, will also stand for elections, though she has maintained a high public profile over the past couple of months. Priyanka is perceived to be more politically savvy and charismatic than her brother.

Two other Gandhi family members -- Rahul's cousin Varun and aunt Maneka, the wife of Indira Gandhi's second son Sanjay -- have already joined the BJP. Maneka Gandhi never got along with her mother-in-law, unlike Sonia Gandhi, and hence was not considered the rightful heir to her lineage. Indian tradition demands that the bahu (daughter-in-law) abide by the saas (mother-in-law), though the reality can often turn out the other way.

But will Sonia Gandhi and her children be able to revive the Congress?

The interest in Rahul and Priyanka is not so much for the effect they are likely to have on the current round of elections. For the moment, nobody can match Vajpayee, who is certain to be re-appointed prime minister if the BJP and its allies do manage to cobble a majority.

But speculation about Rahul and Priyanka's role is bound to continue as Indian politics moves into the post-Vajpayee phase. Many have commented that the BJP is what it is due to Vajpayee. Take away the man and you have a party that is likely to be unacceptable to the BJP's coalition allies as well as a majority of moderate Hindus.

THE BJP leadership's second rung is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who is not much younger than Vajpayee, but is considered to be in a better state of health. He has embarked on a countrywide yatra (caravan) addressing rallies in an effort to reach out to every section of the population. But it will be difficult for him to shake off his image as the architect of the Hindutva movement centered on the building of a temple to Lord Ram at Ayodhya.

The BJP's original rise and Vajpayee's premiership six years ago were a result of Advani's espousal of this agenda steeped in religious fanaticism. But since then, Vajpayee has managed to build himself a moderate, pan-India image appealing to all sections. If the BJP is to have an outside chance of the Muslims ever voting for the party, it will be his doing.

Advani's yatra is an attempt to build for himself the same pan-India acceptance. But it will be a difficult makeover for a man who once said that India belongs to 85 percent of the population. Moreover, major allies such as the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh that rely on Muslim votes will be averse to Advani's leadership.

Beyond the current leaders, there is not much prime ministerial material in the Congress and BJP leadership. There is Arun Shourie (incumbent minister for communications and IT) to match Manmohan Singh (former finance minister), both persons of immense ability but no mass following.

Here is where the Gandhis step in. The Gandhi name brings Congress men together in much the same way as Vajpayee bonds the BJP. Sonia Gandhi is India's biggest crowd-puller after Vajpayee. The problem so far has been competence. She is of foreign origin with acquired communication skills in English and Hindi. Can she, should she, rule India?

Sonia Gandhi is trying hard to come to terms with Indian politics. She may not be a patch on Vajpayee's experience and guile, but set aside the Prime Minister for a moment and her ratings improve. If she has been able to make an impact in Indian politics so far, it has been due to a harking back to the past -- her association with her family's sacrifices. Assassins killed both husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira. But she has to move beyond that if she is to stand a chance against the BJP's well- oiled machinery. The Indian electorate, especially the powerful middle class, will not look back to the Gandhi family's emotional history. They want to reap the benefits of future economic, social and political progress.

It is said that the BJP and more particularly Vajpayee are lucky that his opponent is somebody like Sonia Gandhi, who has paled in comparison. But the BJP's current advantage could be a future disadvantage. It allows her to settle in as the most acceptable face in Indian politics, post-Vajpayee.

If she does manage to hold the Congress together in the next few years, with helping hands from daughter and son, it is possible that she will conquer the competence barrier by acquiring experience. The Gandhis could rule India yet again, with Rahul and Priyanka as close advisers -- and obvious heirs to the legacy, when the time is ripe for them.