Indian shocker

May 14, 2004

THE LATEST version of the greatest show of electoral democracy on Earth - India's national parliamentary elections - led this week to a shocking upset for the Hindu nationalist party that has held sway in New Delhi for the last six years and that called the early vote in firm anticipation that it would win. Now expected are political deals that would return to power the Congress Party - with Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, somewhat incredibly, as the most likely choice for the moment as prime minister.

The early results of three weeks of staggered balloting by 380 million voters across the subcontinent are said to be an unexpected backlash against the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. They pose a particular challenge for the Bush administration, which has been in synch with the BJP on economic matters and on combating Islamic fundamentalism.

The Hindu revivalists - while at times inciting or indirectly condoning large-scale anti-Muslim violence - also succeeded in beginning to liberalize the long-moribund Indian economy, triggering surging growth that dramatically expanded the Indian middle class. Moreover, in just the last year, BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took significant strides toward negotiating peace with Pakistan over contested Kashmir. But the party ran an "e-campaign" with a boom-time theme of "Indian shining" that did not strike a pervasive chord in a nation where several hundred million landless, rural poor still subsist on less than $1 a day.

The return of the Congress Party is a welcome triumph for secularism, a longtime core tenet of Indian politics. In that vein, the potential ascent of the once-reluctant Mrs. Gandhi - widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister assassinated in 1991 - rebuffs BJP efforts to demonize her as a foreigner. But as this generation's heir to the lineage of her husband, his mother (Indira Gandhi) and his grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) - who together have ruled India for 39 of its 57 years - her claim to legitimacy is not so much modern as dynastic.

Congress' comeback also has some particularly fragile elements. The Gandhi clan's powerful appeal remains the party's strongest internal glue. (The next generation, represented by Mrs. Gandhi's son, Rahul, was elected to parliament for the first time.) To prevail nationally, the party had to reach out to many of the smaller regional parties that dot India's contentious political terrain. And to form a government, it will have to build a coalition embracing much more leftist parties.

Whether or not Mrs. Gandhi ascends, the Congress Party yesterday was vowing not to slow down the important steps taken by India under the BJP toward privatizing its economy and achieving peace with Pakistan, India's bitter enemy of the last half-century.

That will be the party's challenge. If it succeeds - and if the BJP doesn't now return to fomenting the fires of Hindu nationalism - India may be able to move forward in a much more socially sustainable way.

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