Two weeks ago, India’s general elections shocked the world when the ruling BJP party was decisively swept out of office by Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party. (Read Slate coverage of the election here.) Congress’ return to power marked the end of 8 years of BJP rule, prior to which the party, and the Gandhi family, had governed India for over 40 years. Now, Gandhi has provided a second shocker by renouncing the post of prime minister she fought so hard to earn. (As leader of the winning political party, it was hers for the taking—instead she will continue as the head of the Congress Party and as an MP in Indian parliament.)During her renunciation speech, more than a dozen of her fellow party members stormed the stage, begging her to take the job. Instead she has designated Manmohan Singh as her choice for prime minister: an economist widely credited for orchestrating crucial reforms in the 1990s during a stint as finance minister.
As the dust settled on a tumultuous electoral process, Indian and international papers began wondering what exactly prompted Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of power. An editorial in the Hindu titled “Stunning Political Sacrifice” argued that the decision should be seen as a moral choice. “[T]he Congress president has seized the high ground to make it plain, in her renunciation speech, that ‘the post of Prime Minister [has not been] my aim.’ ” The piece also points out that Gandhi could have assumed the post in 1991 after her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated. Lashing out at BJP party members who voiced their disgust at Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins (she married into the Gandhi family), the Hindu rejected the idea that Sonia caved under pressure: “In no democracy are losers in an election entitled to overrule the umpire on who won and who lost.”
An opinion piece in the Deccan Herald took a different tack, arguing that India voted for Gandhi, not Singh: “A few feel that Sonia Gandhi’s abdication is a pat on the back for the opposition. Perhaps, but it is also a whack on the face of Indian democracy.” A virulently anti-BJP Guardian op-ed echoed this point, calling the BJP’s “days of personal attacks … a flagrant attempt to subvert the will of the world’s largest electorate.” The piece went on to decry the BJP’s efforts while in power to encourage a strongly Hindu version of the nation’s history: “In its drive to promote an exclusionary and monolithic definition of the Indian nation, the BJP and its allies made history into a political battleground.” Several articles reported on one BJP leader who threatened to resign from parliament rather than have to acknowledge this “foreigner” as prime minister.
A separate Guardian op-ed argued that there were complicated reasons behind Gandhi’s move. Despite the “chaotic and emotional business” of the decision to step aside, the choice was at heart political. Gandhi’s strongest suit is symbolism: “She may be Italian by birth but for [voters] she is Mother India. However, she is as weak on policy formulation as she is strong in personal projection, and to that extent she was right to doubt her prime ministerial ability.”
Whatever their feelings about Gandhi’s decision, most commentators agreed that Mr. Singh is a strong choice. An op-ed in the Hindustan Times argued that Singh, 71, will make a good prime minister despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he is not a political operator. “[W]hat Mr Singh lacks in political clout and savvy, he more than compensates with his stature as an administrator. In 1991, he was plucked from relative obscurity to become finance minister because he was seen as the only person who could rescue the Indian economy from its downward spiral.” But as the Financial Times noted, he will still push India’s cultural boundaries: “A Sikh, Mr Singh will be India’s first non-Hindu prime minister.”