Indian Elections 2004 have turned out to be a roller-coaster ride for those who have been a part of it. The exit polls added the extra zing with their innumerable predictions, many of which proved to be extremely misleading for the India Shiningalliance. Those who were made to bite the dust would probably be forced to agree with the poet, Arthur Hugh Clough who said:
Sceptre and crown must tumble down,
and in the dust be equal made,
with the poor crooked scythe and the spade.
But if there is one figure that stood tall during this election and after, it is the much-maligned videshi bahu. Throughout the campaign, she had to face the worst form of vilification and when the Congress party won, the voices got even more strident, when the BJP realized that Sonia Gandhi was likely to become Prime Minister of the country. Having thought that they would win one more term, the NDA alliance had forgotten to bring in the Constitutional amendment that would ensure that Sonia could not become PM. What did not occur to these senior politicians is that as Leader of the Opposition, Ms. Gandhi, had already been accorded the status of a Cabinet Minister. If they had had any objections, they should have voiced it at that time.
Anyway, better late than never, so we had the likes of Uma Bharti tendering her resignation to the B.J.P. President Venkaiah Naidu (if she was serious, she should have handed in her papers to the Governor of Madhya Pradesh) and Rajya Sabha member, Sushma Swaraj, threatening to adopt widow's weeds and tonsure to block the entry of Rajiv Gandhi's widow to the highest office in the land. But none of them bargained for Sonia's surprise decision to opt out of the No.1 position and anoint Dr. Manmohan Singh instead. The wind has completely gone out of the BJP's sails now and they will have to search for real issues to confront the new government with.
Much has been said and written about Sonia's decision to step aside but for those who have watched her reactions from the time Rajiv Gandhi was forced to first step into his brother's and then his mother's shoes, it comes as no big surprise. She was always a reluctant entrant into politics and one who did it for the sake of the Congress party that had been unable to keep itself together after her husband's demise. For her, the knowledge that sceptre and crown will tumble down was brought home once when she held the bullet-riddled body of her mother-in-law in her lap and then again paid her last respects to a dearly beloved husband wearing outsize glasses to hide her grief from the world. If anybody could have got the message of transience and the dangers of being in politics, it was this shy, reticent lady whom destiny and circumstances catapulted into the position ofNumero Uno in the Congress party.
As Congress MPs came in hoards to the mike to profess their undying loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, she listened without displaying too much emotion, except the occasional smile, on being compared to Gautama Buddha or Mahatma Gandhi. If this lady had not had her feet planted firmly on the ground, she would probably have been flying in the clouds, at all the praise that was heaped on her by these new parliamentarians, some of whom addressed her as Madame Prime Minister and even choked on their words.
Sonia has achieved many things by her decision to step down. Besides taking the bite out of the BJP attack, she has given India its most qualified and experienced Prime Minister. Dr. Manmohan Singh brings to the PM's position, rich academic, bureaucratic and political experience and this should augur well for the country. She has also offered a soothing balm to the Sikhs who have been smarting under the insult to the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star in 1984 and the atrocities committed against their community after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, the very same year. Let us hope that this will ease the threat to her life and those of her progeny.
Many have called Sonia's action, a masterful strategy, and even if this were to be true, it does not matter. How many people could look at power from such close quarters and not grab it with both hands? Many Indian politicians including both Mr. Advani and Mr. Vajpayee, whose party prides itself on its self-abrogated role of preserving Hindu culture, should actually be thinking of Vanaprastha but none of them will ever do so until circumstances force them into political sanyas!
Indians are an emotional people and ideas of sacrifice and tyag (renunciation) are deeply rooted in the Indian psyche and culture. Whether detractors term Sonia's decision to be a stage-managed one or fans call her an epitome of sacrifice, the fact is that this Gandhi bahu of Italian origins (she has spent the first 21 years of her life in Italy and has been in India since the past 37 years), has given Indians a lesson in what many speak of but find hard to put into practice. Sonia's actions are bound to help her party in future elections and it will not be surprising if the Congress comes back with an absolute majority in the next round of parliamentary elections.