Will the Gandhi magic work again?

May 13, 2009

The countdown has begun in India. As political pundits peer into their tea leaves before the results of another marathon election, the question on everybody’s lips is: will the Gandhi magic work again?

Exit polls show the coalition led by Sonia Gandhi will fall short of an outright majority, but her Congress party has a slight edge over its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But then exit polls in India have been way off the mark in the past. Like the last election.

In the 2004 election, the Congress scored a shock victory over the BJP, which many said was a result of Sonia Gandhi’s tireless campaigning and, more importantly, the magic of the Gandhi name. Nobody, just about nobody, had expected the BJP to lose? Or the Congress to win. Not even the Congress itself.

But will Sonia Gandhi do it again this time? Will the Gandhi name work like a charm again? Nobody is willing to hazard a guess this time. Indian voters are known to throw up enormous surprises.

One of the biggest upsets in the history of post-colonial India was Indira Gandhi’s massive defeat in the 1977 election. Mrs Gandhi was considered so invincible that a slogan coined by one of her partymen — Indira is India, India is Indira — had become a household buzzword. She was almost like a Mother Goddess at the time.

And so not even the sharpest of political observers could have predicted 1977. Not even Mrs Gandhi herself.

Defying all expectations, angry Indian voters threw out Mrs Gandhi after she imposed a state of emergency when she clamped down on dissent and launched a sterilisation programme as a solution to the country’s population problem. It was the first time the Congress had tasted defeat in national elections since it began ruling the country after India’s independence from Britain in 1947.

But it wasn’t the last. Indira’s son, Rajiv, who came to power on a massive sympathy wave after her assassination in 1984, didn’t lead the Congress to a majority win in 1989. The Gandhi magic, it seems, had lost its sheen.

Five years ago, when India went to the polls everybody had written off the Congress as a spent force. Newspaper headlines screamed the party was over.

But Sonia Gandhi took the party and the campaign into her hands. Rajiv Gandhi’s widow travelled across the country relentlessly, reaching out to voters in her heavily-accented but fluent Hindi, peppering her speeches with emotional references to her family, especially her husband who was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991.

Her children, Rahul and Priyanka, also joined the fray, campaigning for their mother in Uttar Pradesh where they always got rapturous receptions.

And it paid off.

The party won a stunning victory and for a brief moment, it even seemed like a Gandhi would get the prime minister’s job again. Sonia Gandhi eventually turned down the prime minister’s post, but the country’s first family has remained firmly in the political spotlight since.

As the elections rolled around this time, Sonia and her son, Rahul, hit the campaign trail again with emotional references to the sacrifices made by the Nehru-Gandhi family, particularly Indira and Rajiv, who were both assassinated.

And again, both drew enormous crowds as they campaigned in the heat and dust of various parts of the country, with people walking or cycling for kilometres just to see them.

But will the Gandhi name work again this time? Or will India’s voters look beyond dynastic politics at other more basic issues such as water, electricity, food prices and housing?

If India’s faceless bookmakers are any guide, the ruling Congress party will probably scrape through the current election with Manmohan Singh the firm favourite to retain the prime ministership.

But then again…

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The Gandhi magic could only work because the other alternatives were a sorry bunch. And dynastic politics is not confined to the Gandhis alone.

Posted by Malini | Report as abusive