India's Divisions Block Gandhi's Bid for Power
By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; 11:00 AM
Imagine a U.S. presidential election in which the front-running incumbent was upset by the foreign-born widow of a Kennedy, and the next day Wall Street had its worst day ever.
Welcome to India.
Last week, the Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, and its leftist allies decisively defeated the heavily favored ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
All of a sudden a 57-year-old grandmother born in the heart of Europe was set to become prime minister of the world's largest democracy on Wednesday – a move that now seems in doubt because of a powerful backlash against her heritage and against the leftist agenda of some of her allies.
At the heart of India's impasse, according to online commentators, is a combination of culture war and globalization.
The culture war pits Indian nationalists against secular modernizers. To the nationalists, the prospect of a foreigner ruling India is almost unthinkable.
"Many of us never imagined we would see the day when a foreign-born person from a Western civilisation would rule the world's oldest Eastern civilisation," sniffed one writer on Rediff.com, a Mumbai-based news portal.
A columnist for the Indian Express expressed "deep shame" that Indians could not agree on a native-born leader.
But many others in the subcontinent's online media saw Gandhi's success as a triumph of Indian democracy.
The Indian voters, all 350 million of them, refused "to be fooled by grandiose slogans," said the editors of the Hindu newspaper.
Across the political spectrum observers attributed Gandhi's success to her appeal to poor voters who felt left out by Vajpayee's vision of "India Shining." The incumbent prime minister, projecting the benign image of a strong but kind grandfather, relied on rhetoric that was almost Reaganesque in its sunny patriotism. Most newspaper and pollsters expressed certainty his National Democratic Alliance would win.
Sonia, as she is widely known, sought votes in the other India, the land of the aam aadmi or common man, where computers are rare and disease is rife.
Word of her campaign spread to the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, home to many Indian expatriates left out of the subcontinent's high-tech boom.
Sonia "walked to villages and said to the rural poor, the urban poor, 'Its true . . . India's GDP has grown, we are exporting technology but you don't even have clean water, you don't have roads, and electricity and jobs. Often you don't have enough to eat," reported Ira Mathur, a columnist for the Trinidad and Tobago Express.
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