Sphinx vs. orator in Indian elections

August 19, 1999|By Simon Cameron-Moore

BOMBAY, India -- The Hindu nationalists' "Great Orator" is eclipsing Sonia Gandhi, the rival Congress party's "Sphinx," as campaigning heats up for Indian elections due to start next month.

In a duel more to do with personalities than policies, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, elated by victory in Kashmir, looks unbeatable and opinion polls show the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are expected to return to power in strength.

Mr. Vajpayee, who lost a parliamentary confidence vote by one vote in April, can be relied on to milk his audiences for applause and laughter.

One newspaper editor, T.N. Ninan of the Business Standard, drew parallels between Mr. Vajpayee's style of operating and that of Ronald Reagan, the American president known as "The Great Communicator."

A poet, Mr. Vajpayee mixes strong rhetoric with good humor and homespun philosophy, like one-time movie actor Reagan.

In contrast, the Times of India has dubbed Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the "Sphinx of 10 Janpath" -- referring to her Delhi address and an enigmatic aura which has left many pundits wondering what she really thinks.

Not fluent in Hindi, Ms. Gandhi rarely deviates from the script in public or exposes herself to unfriendly television interviews.

Party discipline

Congress party leaders who voiced fears the party was mistaken in projecting a foreign-born political novice as prime ministerial material rather than a vote-pulling standard bearer were suspended and chose to quit to form their own party.

After putting down the rebellion, the Congress party declared it would only choose its prime minister candidate if it was in a position to form a government.

But the split revealed a fear in the party that it cannot win with her and cannot not win without her.

Her appeal was built on her past reluctance to seek power in the years following her husband's assassination.

A mystique surrounded Sonia Ghandi. She was probably the most photographed woman in India, but the masses had seldom heard her speak. Now that she wants power, the mask has slipped.

Her ill-judged attempt to form a government after ousting Mr. Vajpayee in April showed her to be politically naive.

Mr. Vajpayee, a bachelor septuagenarian has been prime minister twice. Both times his minority governments failed to last the course -- the first, in 1996, fell after just 13 days, the second fell in April this year after 13 months.

Ms. Ghandi sees the Congress party, as the leader of secularist parties, which has meant building bridges with some high-profile regional political leaders tainted by corruption allegations.

Least corrupt

But Mr. Vajpayee has long been regarded as the acceptable, public face of the BJP. There was no notably pro-Hindu legislation introduced during his government's tenure and his party is regarded as the least corrupt.

Therein lies the choice for India's 600 million-plus voters, albeit confused by a rich assortment of regional parties.

Aside from Kashmir there are no wild cards. The incumbent's cause has been helped by good crops in mostly rural India, which should bring some relief to the near 400 million people -- some 40 percent of the population -- living hand to mouth.

If the opinion polls are right Mr. Vajpayee is well ahead.

The India Today poll, released at the weekend, showed the BJP and its allies were likely to score a comfortable 50 seat majority, ending a sequence of minority governments that dogged India through the 1990s.

It also showed 50 percent of voters believed Mr. Vajpayee will make the best prime minister, almost double Ms. Gandhi's rating.

Another recent poll showed 29 percent of people surveyed said the candidates' image was most important. The party's clean image, was second, at 22 percent, and policy issues were a distant third, 15 percent.

Simon Cameron-Moore is a correspondent for Reuters.

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