And a Ghandi shall lead them


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Category: International Date: 17 May 04


"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner. Because I'm not. I am Indian." - Sonia Gandhi.


"You mean to say out of a country of one billion Indians we could only find one foreigner to be the prime minister of India?" spat out an Indian national stunned by the news that the opposition Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, its allies and leftist supporters led in 272 seats-the critical mark needed to form the government.


Thousands of miles away from home, he echoed the shock and disappointment of millions of BJP (Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party) supporters who'd closely followed former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee "India Shining" election campaign which loudly proclaimed India's economic growth and urged rural India to join the march towards a "modern"developed country. It was no less vitriolic on the Indian Internet chat sites.


One particularly enraged voter posted a damning profile of Sonia Gandhi dismissing her as a "semiliterate housewife" and heaped abuse on her children, Priyanka, 31, (who accompanied her mother on the campaign trail) and Harvard-educated son Rahul, who won a seat for Congress. "I just hope that the semi-literate, pizza-munching Italian and her kids meet the same fate as her husband. (Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated).


Anyways (sic) the last time the Gandhi family came to power was two decades ago in 1984 after the sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi's death. Priyanka and Rahul have no chance. They should stick to what they are good at. Priyanka in following new fashions in haute couture and Rahul chasing skirts in South America. (Rahul has a Colombian girlfriend) I wish they are banished from our motherland."


You can understand the rage when a sweeping BJP win was expected, prompting a columnist to write in premature triumph days before the election, "Vajpayee stands taller than anybody in the current political set-up." A master orator, high caste Brahmin (believe me this still counts), politically active for over half a century, increasingly the moderate face of the Hindu BJP party, and gradually winning over secular India with his strides towards peace with Pakistan, the 79-year-old Vajpayee was poised to seek his final electoral victory, cementing his legacy as one of India's most powerful and successful leaders.


In contrast, his opposition in the form of an Italian-born woman, a widow, a Roman Catholic to boot, who failed to lead Congress to power in 1999 in which the party turned in its worst performance since independence must have felt like a joke. Political pundits wrote that she didn't even stand a "ghost of a chance of forming a government in the world's largest democracy." And the BJP prepared to wipe her out of Indian politics entirely as they promised the electorate legislation barring those of foreign origin occupying high office.


But she won. As I write this, the Italian-born daughter of a building contractor from Orbassano could be the next prime minister of India-a country of one billion people. How come? Now they're saying "it's the magic of the Gandhi name. It's the charisma of her two children."


Because India is vast, more of a continent than a country, a land of many provinces, dozens of languages, tribalism runs deep, and wide and in many rivers. Attachments to parties and leaders are as sacred and often intertwined with religious beliefs.


Sonia Gandhi learned from her mother-in-law, who in turn learned from her own father, the first prime minister of India, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, that if the pillar of secularism is removed, it all falls down. Each province will go its own way. The educated Keralite in the South with his Drividian dark skin and fierce features will look at the green eyed, fair uneducated coolie (literally a man who carries loads); Kashmiri in the north and consider him his enemy rather than a fellow Indian. India will crumple into territories awash with blood.


Under the BJP nationalism came dangerously close to being equated with Hinduism. An example. The education minister ordered that historical facts of India's Mogul/Islamic past to be erased from history books for schoolchildren. It was erased. Christians, too, came under attack and were harassed. Although Vajpayee pulled back after the Gujarat massacres under the BJP, and appointed a Muslim President and reached out to Pakistan, it was too late. You can understand how it happened in a country as vast as India.


When millions support the concept of a religious party, the party gets so plumped up in its own importance, puts its beak in the air and forgets about the rest of the millions of non-Hindus-the Muslims, the Christians, the Parsis. It appears that the BJP in their eagerness to embrace modernity also forgot that they were campaigning in a country with the largest number of people living below the World Bank Poverty line in the world.


This is where Sonia and her children neatly stepped in. They walked to villages and said to the rural poor, the urban poor. "Its true, under the BJP 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."


The rural poor alone amounted to many millions. These millions amounted to many votes. No Gandhi magic there. Just people who felt that under this woman, they would be seen again, not left to rot invisibly. Sonia Gandhi's win is a triumph for democracy. More than anything it shows that the last man living in slum has a voice, a say in who will represent them, give them a better life, hope. Now you understand when Kewal Shukla, a middle-aged farmer in a village in Uttar Pradesh, defends her, andvotes for her. "Why should you call Sonia a foreigner? She lives in our house now, she is our bahu, (daughter-in-law) she has had two children here, that's good enough for us."


Sonia's son Rahul is not fazed by the hatred his mother's win has incited in the hearts of many Indians. "Let them attack us, let them abuse us, let them beat us or even let them kill us, my family's and my heart beats for India and will continue to beat for India," He was speaking in Amethi, an area long associated with the Gandhi dynasty. He was saying. Moving. Courageous.


But his next few words make us want to watch this democracy closely. "These people are part of my family, whose association with this place dates back to 40 years; and my coming here is to reassure them that this association is destined to continue for many more decades ahead."


This is not about your association with your father, grandmother, great-grandfather, Rahul. It's about the people. The poor, the marginalised, the forgotten. They made it possible for a widow, a woman, a white woman in a land of Indians, a foreign-born woman, a Roman Catholic to say Jai Hind to a country of a billion people. You and she must never forget the people of India. This victory is about their lives. Not yours.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur