A dose of political reality in India

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The Independent Online

Mrs Sonia Gandhi's decision yesterday not to pursue the post of prime minister after her party's unexpected victory in the Indian election is disappointing but was probably inevitable. She has so far kept silent as to the reasons. But in the hard language of politics they seem to boil down to this: her foreign origins as an Italian had become too big an obstacle to the negotiation of an effective coalition in parliament and she lacked the driving ambition herself to overcome the hostility her candidature was arousing.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi's decision yesterday not to pursue the post of prime minister after her party's unexpected victory in the Indian election is disappointing but was probably inevitable. She has so far kept silent as to the reasons. But in the hard language of politics they seem to boil down to this: her foreign origins as an Italian had become too big an obstacle to the negotiation of an effective coalition in parliament and she lacked the driving ambition herself to overcome the hostility her candidature was arousing.

It is easy enough for her supporters, and the outside world, to dismiss this as xenophobia. And it is certainly true that some politicians, notably among the defeated BJP, have proved particularly vicious in their ethnic criticism, threatening to boycott her investiture and even leave the parliament altogether solely on the grounds that she is a foreigner.

But the real surprise must surely be that she came as close as she did to the job. United States law does not allow a foreign-born president and it is inconceivable that it would be acceptable in, say, France or even her home country of Italy. That she was acceptable to so many - indeed that she won an election - is a tribute both to her personality and, of course, to her name.

The benefit of that name has been widespread recognition and adulation. The penalty has been the passion it has always aroused, a passion which has seen both her husband and her mother-in-law assassinated. Fear of a repetition of that violence may have played a part in her calculations. Certainly her family were concerned at her safety. And she herself, whilst showing great personal courage, has always seemed in two minds as to whether she wanted the tension and personal toll that comes with high political office.

But the more pressing reason was that, in a political situation as delicately poised as this, the formation of a successful coalition requires a leader of accepted authority to all. Reluctantly or not she seems to have finally decided that her candidature was arousing too much opposition to proceed. And the markets at least have judged that decision as the right one, for all the political uncertainty it causes.

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