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India: Congress Party Striving To Move Forward After Week Of Surprises

India's Congress party is striving to cope with fast-moving events since its unexpected win in the country's general election. The party has chosen a respected economist as its nominee for prime minister following the controversial decision of party leader Sonia Gandhi not to lead the government. But he is politically untested, and the Congressional rank-and-file has not resigned itself to Gandhi's withdrawal. The situation in the world's biggest democracy remains emotionally charged.

Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Bollywood, India's colorful film industry, could not have done it better.

A dramatic election victory for the underdog political party. Jubilation among the Indian poor, accompanied by anguish from the middle classes as stock prices plunge to new lows.

Bitter nationalist criticism of the heroine, because she is foreign born and a woman. Her subsequent tearful withdrawal and explanation that her "inner voice" had told her not to take the job of prime minister. Emotional scenes among supporters, one of whom threatens to commit suicide if she goes.
"Some of the electoral allies and some of the partners may do a re-think if anyone other than Sonia Gandhi becomes prime minister."

The party nevertheless selects a new candidate for prime minister, a noted economist, which is reassuring to the moneyed classes. But he has little real experience of the rough-and-tumble of politics in his huge and often violent country. Is he the man for the job? Will the heroine return to the scene by popular demand?

No film plot could cram more developments into a few short days. But this is real life and much is at stake. Following last week's general election result, India's victorious Congress party is hoping to inform the state president this week that it can form a government.

The man picked to lead the cabinet is former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, a key figure in India's economic modernization process, begun during the last Congress-led government from 1991 to 1996. Singh still must be approved by Congress's allied parties, and also needs the support of the rank-and-file of his own party.

That may not be easy to gain. Many Congress members and supporters are shocked by the decision of party leader Sonia Gandhi yesterday to decline the first offer of the prime minister's job.

There has been a mass resignation of top Congress party officials and violent protests by mobs of Gandhi supporters, including the storming of party headquarters by demonstrators who demanded that Gandhi change her mind.

As Congress parliamentary deputy Mani Shanker Aiyer put it: "My inner voice demands, Madam [Sonia Gandhi], that at this moment your leadership is so important, so please do not leave us. Please remain with us. We need your leadership. It is only under the prime ministership of Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi that this party will remain united and this country will remain united."

Aiyer was responding to Gandhi's speech earlier in the day, in which she turned down the top job.

"The post of prime minister has not been my aim,” she said. “I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. Today that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post."

Gandhi's gesture is meant to defuse a brewing national row over her foreign origins. Chagrined hard-liners in the ousted Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have renewed their verbal campaign against her for being an Italian by birth.

But Gandhi is also following her own instincts of self-preservation. Her husband, Rajiv, and her mother-in-law Indira were both assassinated while holding prime ministerial offices. Her own children have implored her not to take the risk of being killed in that same office.

So Singh is being nominated in her stead. But according to London-based political analyst Rahul Roy Chaudhury of the Royal United Services Institute, this could also complicate Congress's coalition building. That's because Congress's political allies have based their agreement on the prospect that Gandhi will be coalition leader.

"Some of the electoral allies and some of the partners may do a re-think if anyone other than Sonia Gandhi becomes prime minister," Chaudhury said.

He says a substitute like Singh might have to strike his own deal with some of the prospective allies that are needed to give Congress a parliamentary majority.

If his cabinet wins presidential approval, Singh would be the first Sikh prime minister of India.

Sometimes called the father of the Indian economic reform movement, Singh is a highly regarded intellectual. As finance minister during the last Congress period in office, he set the stage for the deeper reforms carried out later by the center-right government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But analysts express some doubts about his political skills, which are largely untested. And merely holding Congress together will be difficult, let alone instilling domestic and international confidence that reform will not be abandoned.

The reforms have brought India spectacular economic growth in recent years, mainly in high-tech fields. But that growth has largely benefited the urban dwellers and the middle classes.

India's poor rural majority, suffering drought and poverty, feel they have not shared in Vajpayee's reforms. It was their discontent which was translated into votes for Congress, and against the BJP.

Whoever its leader, the new Congressional government will have to satisfy the demands of the poor, while seeking to preserve the country's economic dynamism and sense of innovation.