The Asian Age of India led its front page Friday with questions about the future of Sonia Gandhi after she led the Indian Congress Party “through its worst ever electoral performance since Independence.” It said the Italian-born widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi now faces challenges to her authority following the comfortable general election victory of incumbent Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance. The first challenge will be over her selection as leader of the Congress Party in Parliament, the paper said. “There is bitterness in the party over her complete failure to bring in votes,” it went on. “Leaders returning from their constituencies after countering … propaganda against her foreign origin are visibly worried about this factor which they see as a ‘handicap.’ “
In London, the Independent reported from New Delhi that Gandhi’s “lack of political experience, her weak grasp of Hindi, her foreign birth and a certain lack of cultural sympathy with her adoptive land–despite many strenuous denials–all took their toll.” But it said it is unlikely that anyone will be so rash as to run against her for the party leadership. “In the longer term, the party may lean towards Priyanka Vadhera, Mrs Gandhi’s daughter, who campaigned very effectively in Uttar Pradesh for her mother.” An editorial in the Financial Times welcomed Vajpayee’s victory. “[A]s the exuberant response of the Bombay stock market showed yesterday, there are some grounds for hoping that the new administration may enjoy a longer life than its predecessors. If so, it will have a chance to proceed with economic reforms that could secure India a still higher growth rate.”
The Times of India reported Indian reluctance to have American sanctions against it waived. The Indian government thinks current moves in the U.S. Congress to lift the sanctions imposed on both India and Pakistan after their nuclear tests would benefit Pakistan more. Unlike Pakistan, India buys very little military equipment from the United States, and Indian officials say that arms acquired by Pakistan have always been used against India. The paper said Vajpayee has written to Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., co-chairman of the India Caucus, saying that a resumption of U.S. arms sales to Pakistan “would be viewed as a very negative development.”
In an editorial, the Times of India said it was a tragedy that Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila has decided to follow her father’s example and take up boxing. “[S]he doesn’t have to look farther than her father for the debilitating effects of being pounded on the head,” it said. “The Great Ali, who was the master of the ring during his heyday, is now a walking shadow of his once-imperious self. … To hear him mumble his way through a conversation and hesitantly shuffle around is a surefire promo for the anti-boxing brigade. He may have been the greatest, but now he’s reduced to a pathetic bundle of nerves.”
British newspapers were all dominated Friday by the aftermath of this week’s train crash in London, in which up to 127 people died. There was a fevered debate about rail safety, with the Times of London reporting that rail managers were formally warned last March about problems with the visibility of a signal at the approach to Paddington Station that was apparently missed by a novice train driver. The other main story was Thursday’s attack on Prime Minister Tony Blair by Conservative opposition leader William Hague, who called Blair a liar, a fraud, and the chief architect of a systematically hypocritical and deceitful government.
In Israel, Ha’aretz said Friday that Israel is now the world’s sixth-largest nuclear power. Quoting a “secret document from the American Department of Energy,” it said in its lead story that “Israel has 300 to 500 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium, which means it can produce at least 250 nuclear weapons.” It added, “For comparison, Russia has 140 tons of the material, the U.S. has 85 tons, Britain has 7.6 tons, France 6 to 7 tons, and China 1.7 to 2.8 tons. Israel is ahead of India (150-250 kg) and of North Korea (23-35 kg).”
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung led Friday with a report from Moscow that the Russian government told a European Union delegation that it will not accept any international interference in its war in Chechnya. In Russia, Izvestiya reported Thursday that Russian military chiefs have plans to storm the Chechen capital of Grozny in what would mark a huge escalation of the weekold invasion of the rebel republic. The Russian general staff has “operational plans and a detailed timetable of movement of troops to Grozny and even of the storming of the city,” the newspaper said.
Komsomolskaya Pravda Thursday carried an interview with former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin attacking the United States for its “hysteria” about Russia. (Click here for a Slate “Assessment” of Chernomyrdin.) Discussing his recent U.S. visit, Chernomyrdin said: “No one in America understands what is going on [in Russia]. They stamp their feet on us, pour dirt from head to toe. Up to the president! It has come to the point where they call Russia a refuse pit!” He continued, “And I told the Americans, in your country they steal more. And for a hundred years already. … Why are you pestering Russia? We know ourselves what is bad here. You’d better help us.”