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archive: The Riddle of the Sphinx (Excerpts)

The Riddle of the Sphinx (Excerpts)

Aparisim Ghosh
May 3, 1999.

    Title: The Riddle of the Sphinx (Excerpts)
    Author: Aparisim Ghosh
    Publication: Time
    Date: May 3, 1999.
    I should have known to take my phone off the hook last week when it
    began to look likely that Sonia Gandhi would become India's next prime
    minister.  Sure enough, 1 was inundated by calls from Indian friends
    and acquaintances, some expressing disgust, others dismay.  A few
    talked of giving up their citizenship, and at least one threatened to
    flush his passport down the toilet.  All this because the lady was
    born, 52 years ago and 6,000 km away from New Delhi, as Sonia Maino.
    In chatrooms and e-mail chains, the Sonia jokes range from sarcastic
    to scatological.  As is often the case with online humor, most of the
    Sonia jokes are ba- nal, juvenile.  But they also touch some raw
    nerves.  One pained recipient hit the Reply All key and wrote, "We
    should be crying, not laughing."
    I'll do neither.  These expressions of anguish, the heart- felt and
    the hyperbolic, are misplaced.  That Sonia was born in the village of
    Orbassano, near Turin, is irrelevant to her political pedigree.  On
    the contrary, in the eyes of her Congress Party workers she represents
    something uniquely Indian: the haloed Nehru-Gandhi family.  She is
    Indira's daughter-in- law, Rajiv's widow, the mother of Jawaharlal's
    great-grand-children.  Italian?  It wouldn't matter if she came from
    that new solar system scientists just discovered.
    It wouldn't matter to me, either.  Don't get me wrong: 1 think Sonia
    makes a thoroughly undeserving candidate for prime minister, but not
    because of the nationality of her parents.  I find her inappropriate
    for the very reason her party deems her to be perfect.  It infuriates
    me that she requires no qualifications for the highest job in the land
    other than having been married to a Nehru-Gandhi.  It disgusts me that
    no- body in the Congress seems to recognize that dynasties and
    democracies make a very bad mix.
    I'd happily overlook these flaws if 1 could believe that she would be
    a force for real change in Indian - and Congress - politics.  If she
    were to indicate a willingness to cut away the cancers of sycophancy
    and venality that have eaten into India's grand old party, most people
    would be only too willing to embrace "Rome rule."  But in the year she
    has been Congress president, Sonia has shown no desire to change
    anything.  On the contrary, she has displayed the traits of most
    contemporary Indian politicians: a weakness for toadies and a lack of
    principle when pursuing power.
    If anything, Sonia has taken the party back to its worst days under
    her late mother- in-law and husband, reviving the long-dormant careers
    of the oiliest, most odious characters who once paid obeisance to
    Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.  Many of these men are so thoroughly
    discredited in the eyes of Indian voters that they couldn't get
    elected dog-catcher of Delhi.  Sadly, India's Westminster-style
    political system allows them to be nominated to the upper house of
    parliament and, in turn, the cabinet.  (That's another lacuna the
    writers of the constitution overlooked.) The manner in which the
    Congress engineered Vajpayee's downfall-by making a deal with one of
    his coalition partners, the corpulent former actress Jayalalitha
    Jayaram shows Sonia will do anything for power, even conspire with one
    of the country's most reviled figures.
    This might make Sonia a heroine among her party faithful, but she will
    soon discover that the adulation ends there.  Most Indian voters will
    not waste much thought on Sonia's genealogy.  Indeed they will treat
    her as an Indian politician: with scorn and suspicion.  Come the next
    general election - which the smart money says will be no later than
    November - the Congress, unable to convince the electorate that it has
    changed its spots, will once again fall short of a clear majority. 
    That will start yet another cycle of short-lived coalition
    governments.  How Italian.  How Indian.  How sad

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