When India’s ruling Congress party asked ministers and bureaucrats to cut down on needless expenses at a time of recession and deepening drought, many in the country had one question on their lips: will the austerity drive work?Rahul Gandhi tried to set an example by travelling by train as an ordinary passenger. His mother, Sonia, abandoned her private army plane and flew economy class on a commercial flight for a party rally in Mumbai.But there is still a great deal of scepticism among people. Some of the doubting was fuelled after the train Rahul was travelling in was pelted with stones. Experts said Rahul’s train trip was a security risk, which could cramp the austerity drive.But it’s not just the security concerns alone. The austerity drive also drew ridicule following a controversy over two senior government ministers staying in luxury hotel suites priced at $1,000 and $1,500 a night until their official residences were ready.Both ministers said they’d paid for their suites themselves, but stung by criticism amid the government’s austerity drive, they moved to more modest temporary homes.However, it was too late to change the mind of ordinary Indians who over years of Nehruvian socialism had begun to associate Congress politicians as leaders in simple hand-spun cotton, or khadi, clothes who drove around in old-fashioned Ambassador cars.Now, the question many are asking is: will the austerity drive last with election campaigns for Maharashtra and Haryana about to begin?True, with the economy in trouble, the government is making an effort with the finance ministry appealing for fewer overseas trips and smaller entourages as well as a ban on conferences in luxury hotels.But it isn’t easy: one minister protested he was “too tall” to fly economy while another said their positions demand they entertain in style.So, will the government’s austerity drive last? The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doesn’t think so. A BJP spokesman said it was just an “election gimmick” and they would go back to their usual ways once the state elections were over.Will they?
With the wrangling for allies in earnest ahead of election results due Saturday, women leaders hold an inordinate amount of power in deciding who will form the new Indian government.
Women leaders have always had a role in the rough and tumble of Indian politics, from Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant in the independence struggle to Indira Gandhi, the second woman in the world to become prime minister.
Women leaders are perhaps at the peak of their influence now, with Gandhi’s political heir regarded the most powerful of them all — indeed, the most powerful political leader in the country.
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.
It is a resemblance that Sonia uses to her advantage on the campaign trail ahead of the election, frequently referring to the contributions and sacrifices made by the Nehru-Gandhi family, particularly Indira and husband Rajiv, who were both assassinated.
Sonia, dragged into politics after a stunning defeat for the Congress party in 1998, is clearly the party’s star campaigner, speaking at three or four rallies everyday, criss-crossing the country in a chopper which holds as much fascination for people in rural India as a glimpse of the nation’s “bahu” or daughter-in-law, as Sonia is called.
Much as he tries astrologer Rajan Chopra can’t keep the pride out of his voice as he speaks to me for the second time in 24 hours.
It’s victory march at 7 Race Course Road after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wins a closely-fought vote of confidence 275 to 256 in parliament and the temptation for Chopra to say “I told you so” is overwhelming. But Chopra, a political and corporate astrologer who predicted yesterday that the government would win the trust vote, says “it’s a victory for astrologers as well”.
If popular predictions are anything to go by then stargazers say the strong Saturn in Congress President Gandhi’s astrological chart is to be thanked for the government’s victory and the Congress party will be wise to look heaven wards for further guidance before general elections next year.
Every newspaper is speculating if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has staked his personal reputation on the deal, will resign to disassociate himself from an administration that failed to save a pact keenly watched by the world.
But are these the arguments India should be debating in the short-term or should we be discussing the real benefits and drawbacks of the deal?
Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh criticised last week how decision-making within Congress was made in a “narrow context” — meaning the Gandhis. He quickly backtracked by swearing loyalty to the family, but only after being publicly snubbed by Sonia Gandhi.
This came amid a controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s very public trips around India — leading to him being called “Crown Prince”. Some said he was overshadowing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.