It is always instructive, whatever the reason,
to watch a politician decline to assume power that might have been hers. In the case of India’s Sonia Gandhi, perhaps in an illustration of the pervasiveness of paradox in human affairs, it might lead to her becoming an even more powerful political presence over time than if she had become prime minister earlier this month. And once the drama has been played out and the dust has settled, India just might be better off.
Gandhi is the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated while prime minister in 1984. As president of India’s Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi presided last week over an unexpected victory in parliamentary elections. That put her in line to be prime minister, but she declined to take the position. Instead, Manmohan Singh, a former finance minister, will become prime minister.
All this creates a fascinating picture. India is 85 percent Hindu, and all its prime ministers until now have been Hindu. But Indian voters tossed out the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, gave a majority to a foreign-born Roman Catholic and will watch as a Muslim president swears in a Sikh prime minister.
As Parag Khanna, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it, “India is the clash of civilizations that didn’t happen.” Instead, people from different cultures have chosen to live together and to a great extent to separate their political preferences from their religion or ethnicity.
The choice of Manmohan Singh caused the Indian stock market to rise, perhaps for good reason. He was the architect of economic reforms begun in 1991 that reduced barriers to foreign investment and competition, reduced the miles of red tape previous bureaucracies had tied around businesspeople and those who wanted to start a business, and privatized a number of inefficient government enterprises.
These reforms led to an economic boom that unfortunately has yet to reach the poorest of India’s people, but has created a sense of possibility. Khanna believes Singh will continue such reforms, though he will have to maneuver delicately among various factions to do so. He also believes Congress Party veterans may do as well or better than Bharatiya Janata Party members at reaching a less-hostile relationship with Pakistan.
Sonia Gandhi will remain as president of the Congress Party. Her gesture of renunciation is widely seen as noble (though political and personal calculation were involved), in a culture where self-sacrifice is honored as an ideal though seldom practiced. So she may come out of this with, as the Deccan Herald in India put it, “an authority that lies beyond power.”
The United States had no first-priority interest in this outcome, but a peaceful and prosperous India wouldn’t hurt. For better or worse, the United States has plenty of problems to deal with in other parts of the world.