Thursday, May 13, 2004

Congress Wins! Sonia PM?

[Update: The best analysis of the results I've found comes from an essay in Slate, that actually appeared yesterday (before the results were known). Obviously more in-depth analyses will be appearing in the weeks to come, but right now the best explanation on the block is the rural/urban divide.]

In a huge upset, the Congress party has won the elections. Will Sonia Gandhi be the next PM?

According to, Sonia is actually the third foreign-born woman, and the eight person overall to be the president of the Congress party. The other two foreign-born women were Annie Besant (the famous reformer and theosophist) and Nelli Sengupta.

So she is no anomaly in a certain respect. But neither of those other women were President of Congress in independent India. A foreign-born Prime Minister would definitely be completely unprecedented, in Indian history as well as the histories of many other Parliamentary republics. It would also be a constant liability for the Congress.

Interestingly, one of the other possible names mentioned as a Prime Minister candidate is Manmohan Singh. It seems unlikely (where has he been for the last 10 years?), but he is often credited with starting India down the path of liberalization in the early 1990s, so he might be reassuring to the business community.

Another name is Harkrishan Singh Surjeet, the head of the Communist Party. Other names are Deve Gowda (who was the head of the United Front governemnt in 1996), as well as Laloo Prasad Yadav (the notoriously corrupt minister from Bihar).

Doesn't look like too many good options! I think Sonia is inevitable.


Rob Breymaier said...

What a stunning victory. It's heartening to see that a party led by a foreign-born woman can win an election - even if she is part of a dynasty. I wonder how much this indicates a turn away from communalism.

Also, given the Congress campaign, I wonder if India will again go a "third way" continuing to liberalize the economy while making efforts to provide for the poorest in the country. It's a historic moment for India. As it blossoms into a global economic power, we could possibly see a model of development that includes fairness. Maybe it will influence IMF and World Bank policies if it does follow that model and succeeds.

Of course, I'm getting way ahead of things. We need to see if Congress can do a good job running the country first. It has been a few years since they last were in power. And, at that time corruption was a real problem. I wonder if those old demons will return and return the BJP to power in a few years.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous said...

That's stupid (as usual). It is disheartening to see a foreign born woman in line for PMship merely because she is the matriarch of a royal family. This isn't a vote for the Congress or Gandhi - it is a vote against status-quo. Congress happens to be the beneficiary. BJP was the beneficiary the last time.

The Congress is known for its sychophancy and vote-bank politics, which doesn't translate to good governance in the mid and long term. Moreover it sleeps with scum of the earth like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav.

11:22 AM  
Amardeep said...

It's true that the people around Sonia are known to be 'fixers' rather than experienced, uncorrupt government officials. I also agree with the previous poster that this is a vote against the status quo in a series of local contests, rather than a clear endorsement of Congress politics at a national level.

As one Indian newspaper put it yesterday (after the Andhra results came out), this election is a "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" (a ref. to Naidu's links to the software industry). There is nothing to stop the country from hitting the magic buttons again the next time the computer crashes.

For now, I'm inclined to be a little more optimistic and 'wait and see' on this than the previous poster. The new government knows it can fall anytime, and it also knows it has to get things done at a local level if it is to stick around. Hopefully the new govt. will bring in some fresh talent and keep Laloo and his friends out of the Cabinet.

12:09 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I didn't deny the corruption factor. But, the BJP did use Sonia's national origin as a campaign tactic. Even if the vote was primarily against the status quo, it still provides evidence that prejudice didn't work in this election. Indeed, if the vte was against the status quo what status quo are we talking about. Were Indians really voting against a status quo of economic growth? Or, were they voting against a status quo of divisive rhetoric and ignorance toward the plight of the poor? Somehow I think it was the latter.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous said...

Most Indians don't give a toss about 'divisive politics' unless their day-to-day functioning gets hampered by riots and murders. There are more important things on their mind - water and jobs. there is no statistic I have seen, but people, usually women and girl-children spend hours merely on getting water, that too of a very poor quality.

12:33 PM  
Amardeep said...

"Most Indians don't give a toss about 'divisive politics' unless their day-to-day functioning gets hampered by riots and murders."

Perhaps that is why the anti-Sonia rhetoric of the last two weeks also didn't stick? Maybe the working classes and rural Indians who voted Congress are just voting for an equal share of the pie, and found her birth to be irrelevant.

Does her birth in and of itself make her a less effective administrator? No. I think a much greater problem is the fact that she has so little experience in elected office (remember, she didn't hold elected office in India until around 1998).

Is it a problem that the Nehru/Gandhi family name in India is a dynasty? Yes. Does it lead to corruption and patronage politics? Again, yes, though I think the complacency of the Congress has to be less after a few years in the opposition.

As of now Congress corruption at the top level is a danger, not a certainty. And don't forget the BJP's own Tehelka scandal!

1:12 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Thanks for the update on what "most Indians" care about. How about some support for that sweeping statement? I fail to see the logic in voting against a party that has made significant progress updating the water infrastructure if water concerns are at the top of the list. See this UN statistic to see the progress - especially with sanitation.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous said...

I dont know how reliable are the numbers you quote. It's like employment figures. If you include people employed for teo months of a year out of twelve, things don't look so bad. Statistics can be made to do anything.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is cynical to say this - but there are grades to corruption. Despite everything about Tehelka, there wasn't any real corruption brought to light - only the promise of it.

1:35 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

The WHO is a very credible institution. Also, if there is anything in error with the statistics it is likely to be in error for both years so the progress would still be valid. Also, I tried to see if there were any conflicting reports. Didn't see any. If you do please post them.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous said...

Most people in India would not have read the WHO report and therefore are not aware that their life has turned for the better as far as water is concerned. I can show you any number of reports of ground water depletion and ground water contamination. These are mostly anecdotal - no surveys. Health care access has improved. Has the improvement been enough? No.

1:59 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Amardeep, I'd be interested to hear what you think of Sonia as a personification of the postcolonial and/or hybridity. I just wondered quickly, does it matter that Sonia was born in Europe and not say Malaysia?

2:16 PM  
Amardeep said...

I also hear anecdotal stories about water shortages. Yesterday over dinner a friend from Maharashtra was talking about a drought that has been devastating certain sectors of that state, despite the good rains last year. India is a big country -- while many parts progress, some places continue to suffer. Still, the statistics are interesting.

(Side note: There is an interesting art film with Rahul Bose that deals with water issues. It is called "Split Wide Open." It depicts a kind of water mafia that controls a lucrative water racket in Bombay's chawls... It also has an angle on 'reality TV'. I would recommend it.)

On Brey's question. I think the difference with Sonia is that she just doesn't have Indian blood. She does project Indianness ok with her white sari and her pre-written speeches in Hindi. But everyone knows it's an act.

Whereas an Indian by blood can know very little about India, speak with a foreign accent (or not even speak Hindi), and still get quite a bit of acceptance. Take V.S. Naipaul, who made a career writing books trashing India before he decided 5 years ago that he liked it. If he decided to get Indian citizenship and run for something tomorrow, no one would bat an eye!

(Well, our principled friend S. Kumar might... but he would be in the minority)

Discourses of hybridity falter against the discourse of identity based on 'blood', which still counts for a lot in today's world (and not just in India). Sonia's children -- Rahul and Priyanka -- will not have the problems in politics she's had because they have Nehru blood in them. So generally speaking, hybridity fails, blood wins.

But then again, maybe not: her party won the elections with the full understanding that she would be likely to take the PM position.

It reminds me of Benjamin Disraeli, who was of Jewish descent & who became Prime Minister of England in 1868... Hm.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh,

Just a few comments based on a (very) hurried look at the poll results:

I agree Dr. Singh that a national explanation is unlikely. Any such reason for the NDA's defeat ought to have, proportionally, cost the BJP more seats than its allies--yet that doesn't seem to be the case, at least at first glance. The BJP's allies suffered far worse, suggesting the predominance of local issues over national ones.

If there were national reasons revolving around the reforms initiated by the BJP, I wonder if they may not have been due to 'rising expectations' not being met. Thus access to water may well have improved under the BJP but perhaps not enough to satisfy most voters.

Oh and about the rejection of 'divisiveness': One can't draw that inference from this election result.
Ethnicity matters only in 'disturbed' times, not in 'normal' times. I too suspect that Sonia G's ethnicity will haunt the INC from time to time.

P.S., Brey you talk of a third way to be shown the world by the INC. Brey, you're banking on the INC to be innovative! Now that's one hell of a longshot.

P.P.S., What is this 'third way'? Enquiring minds want to know.

1:15 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Sorry for the delay. PC trouble here.

Anyway, I understand that politcs is far from ideal in India and the United States. My hopeful comments are certainly a little overly optimistic. After a win this surprising, I think it's natural to bring up hopeful scenarios. Will INC go that route? In other words will they go a "third way" as I hope(d). I don't know. Probably, it'll be a "lite" version of that.

The "third way" I'm hoping for is a combination of continuing the economic liberalization of the economy and enhancing it with considerations that account for the realities of Indian (and global -including the West) socio-economic problems. I would expect that Congress will continue to privatize what can be privatized. And, I expect that there will be continued luring of investment from other nations. The investment in biotech etc. is likely to continue as well. (Why not continue a successful strategy?)

I'm hoping that at GATT and WTO meetings that India will play a more progressive role in advocating for labor, environmentla, and justice standards. I'm hoping that India will become an important voice for the "lesser-developed-nations" at these discussions.

I think it's in the realm of possibilities because Congress is a center-left party. And, its allies lean farther left. Additionally, many of the Congress wins were in the rural areas. So, their constituents have these interests in mind.

I consider India to be a "thirdspace" - a space that does not fit easily into dialectic categories such as developed/developing, powerful/subservient, center/periphery etc. (see Said, bhabha, Soja) India fits into both categories. (see Khilnani, Tharoor) So, India is a likely place for a new governmental model/ideology/paradigm to emerge.

But, hey politics is politics. And, global monetary and trade organizations have a lot of power to harm. Five years ago, one could have argued that India's boom was reliant on investment from the outside - particularly the West. Now, though, I think the Indian economy has gained significant internal growth. (I checked on this with World Bank data but it doesn't link correctly.) So maybe optimism isn't so out of line.

2:14 PM  

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