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Sonia Gandhi Refuses India's Top Position - 2004-05-24


Sonia Gandhi, leader of the victorious Congress Party in India's recent election, surprised the world when she refused the offer to become India's next prime minister. She has been silent on her reasons, but her allies said she was concerned that the controversy over her foreign origins would overshadow her rule. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on Mrs. Gandhi's decision to turn down India's most powerful job.

The results stunned the nation: incumbent Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was swept out of office, clearing the way, most people thought, for an Italian-born woman to become leader of the world's most populous democracy. Some Indians protested the idea, while others embraced it, believing such a possibility reflected India's openness and tolerance.

Yet the roller coaster of Indian politics continued, when Sonia Gandhi emotionally announced her decision to not accept the position of prime minister, following what she called her inner voice. “Today that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.”

Protest erupted across India as loyal Gandhi supporters rallied outside her home, begging her to change her mind. One party member even held a gun to his head, saying he would pull the trigger if she refused. Some lawmakers were in tears, but Mrs. Gandhi said her decision was final. She selected economist Manmohan Singh to take the prime minister's post.

Many people who are close to her said she was concerned about the mounting campaign against her foreign origins. Hard-line members of the outgoing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party warned they would launch street protests if Mrs. Gandhi was sworn into the post. While such actions may have influenced her decision, South Asia analyst, Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that Sonia Gandhi is motivated by duty, not power. “She's in many ways a reluctant politician. There was never a conviction that she was in this business because she one day wanted to become prime minister. By upbringing, by training, by expectation, by desire, this is not a job she wanted, but fate has put her there.”

She was born Sonia Maino to a Roman Catholic family, right after the Second World War in the northern Italian town of Orbassano. Her life changed direction after she married Rajiv Gandhi and joined India's most well known political dynasty -- the Nehru-Gandhi family. In 1983, she surrendered her Italian passport in favor of full Indian citizenship and went even one step further, according to professor Rajan Menon of Lehigh University. “She has lived in India more or less since 1968. She has also gone to great lengths in her dress and learning Hindi to embrace the country and she has repeatedly said, I consider myself an Indian, I am not foreigner."

Her Italian roots have been a controversy ever since she was unexpectedly thrust onto the political stage after her husband Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “She entered politics at a particularly convulsive moment, when the Congress (Party) was fracturing and falling apart. It was by her own personality and her link to the Gandhi family and the fact that she stood for a secular alternative against the Hindu nationalist wave that actually allowed the Congress party to retrieve its political position.”

Other observers believe Sonia Gandhi turned down the post because of genuine security concerns. Both her husband Rajiv, and her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, served as prime ministers and both were killed by assassins. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi received death threats amidst the controversy over her foreign birth.

The debate over whether her Italian background would affect her rule has divided many Indians, including the estimated 20 million living overseas. Fifty-eight year-old medical doctor Chandra Sekar has been in the United States for more than 30 years and says that even though India is a welcoming nation, its colonial past has left an imprint on the Indian psyche. “In a historical context, India welcomed with open arms the Mogul emperors -- they ruled India for 400 years -- and the British -- they took over the country for 250 years. With that type of a background, I have definitely some problems that a foreign born person becomes a prime minister of India.”

Dr. Sekar says he also has concerns that Sonia Gandhi comes from a political dynasty -- a concept, he says, is incompatible with democracy.

Analyst Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says she will still wield significant power, only she will do so from behind the scenes. “In many ways I think she will still be intimately involved with running India. She will remain the president of the Congress Party, she will still be the poster child for Indian secularism, so in fundamental ways, her power is not going to decrease. She is going to be enormously influential.”

What remains to be seen, he adds, is whether the new prime minister, Manmohan Singh will be able to establish himself as a center of power, independent of his Congress Party leader, Sonia Gandhi.

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