The power of kingmaker

May 26, 2004|By Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI -- The high drama in India following the biggest upset in Indian politics has raised troubling questions about the stability of the new government and its ability to take hard decisions on key challenges.

The country's first non-Hindu prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a Sikh economist, must steer an unwieldy coalition government while real power rests outside, with the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

India has no experience of being led by a prime minister who openly acknowledges that he is a stand-in for the person with the popular mandate.

But this is not the only unusual development since the May 13 shock defeat of the Hindu nationalist-led government.

There was first the unparalleled spectacle of the winning alliance leader deciding, on second thoughts, to be the kingmaker rather than the queen.

In the process, Mrs. Gandhi -- raised a Roman Catholic -- has positioned herself in a win-win situation in a predominantly Hindu India. By first persuading her party lawmakers and allied parties to support her bid to be prime minister and then deciding not to take the top job in the world's largest democracy, Mrs. Gandhi won many hearts and put herself in a firm position to cash in on her sacrifice in the future.

The drama left an impression that Mrs. Gandhi's U-turn was linked to pressure from two quarters -- her two adult children, supposedly concerned about her safety, and the defeated Hindu nationalists, who had raked up controversy anew over her foreign origin.

In reality, however, Mrs. Gandhi's about-face was a canny, calculated move.

The election produced no clear verdict, giving Mrs. Gandhi's Congress party only 145 seats in the 545-member Parliament. Although several smaller parties are allied with the Congress party and the two Communist parties pledged to back her, Mrs. Gandhi suffered two post-election setbacks in rapid succession: First an important regional ally, the DMK party, and then the Communists decided not to join her proposed government but to extend their support to her from outside.

Rather than dirty her hands running a rickety government buffeted by pressure from outside allies and unable to deliver on its election promises, Mrs. Gandhi decided shrewdly to stay Mrs. Clean and take a rain check on being prime minister.

This maneuver fits well with Mrs. Gandhi's ambition to make her son, Rahul Gandhi, assume the mantle of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Mr. Gandhi still needs several years of political grooming before he can assume a leadership role within the party.

Moreover, Mrs. Gandhi calculated that it wasn't necessary to be prime minister when she can wield real power behind the scenes.

Mrs. Gandhi is like a cult figure in the Congress party, presiding over an organization that has, since Indian independence in 1947, been associated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. After Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and Indira's son, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi is the fourth member of India's most-famous family to be party chief. But for the sympathy factor arising from the assassinations of two of its members -- Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi (Sonia Gandhi's husband) in 1991 -- the dynasty probably would not have survived for so long.

Such is the present power of Sonia Gandhi over the party that she dictated the choice of Mr. Singh -- a member of her inner circle and a widely respected Sikh economist -- as prime minister. She also picked the key members of Mr. Singh's Cabinet.

A technocrat, Mr. Singh has never won an election; the only time he ran for Parliament, he lost. But Mr. Singh's limitations became a political asset when he was asked to manage a coalition government whose constituents continue to fight for plum jobs after taking days to arrive at a "common minimum program" for governance based on the lowest common denominator.

If Mr. Singh's government performs well, the credit will go to Mrs. Gandhi. But if it founders, her direct stewardship will be seen as indispensable to the stability of a new government.

In the meantime, Mrs. Gandhi will remain the supreme, unchallenged leader of the Congress party. In fact, in a bizarre twist in last week's high drama, Mrs. Gandhi got her party hurriedly to amend its constitution to permit her, as party president, to also be the party leader in Parliament despite her decision not to assume power. That makes Mr. Singh the first Indian prime minister who is not the leader of his own party in Parliament.

Having taken the wind out of the sails of her opponents by turning down the job that was hers for the asking, Mrs. Gandhi now has to brace for the impending next line of attack against her -- that she is the extraconstitutional center of power, wielding authority without accountability.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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