29th November 1998
India: A fine Italian hand?
By Mervyn de Silva
For the foreign policy adviser or serious student of Indo-Sri Lankan relations, Tamilnadu is an intermestic factor, a problem which involves both international relations as well as domestic problems. Thus the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, for example.
Yes, who killed Rajiv Gandhi? Does anybody care any more? That seems to be the reaction of the average voter, claim the Indian media and the pundits, and they may be right but... yes but and it’s a big but. What makes all the difference is Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Rajiv’s widow who is right now using the Congress Party machine to prepare their son for leadership. So much so that Delhi-based diplomats and intelligence agencies fear that the next chapter in the parliamentary history of the world’s largest democracy may be written in a fine Italian hand.
Women and dynasties have dominated South Asian politics, Sri Lanka, the fashion-leader, India, Pakistan and in a way, Bangladesh too. The Bandaranaikes, the Nehru-Gandhis, the Bhuttos and the ladies in Bangladesh, all soldiers also in that new struggle, Women’s Liberation.
Yes, Sonia Gandhi and Tamilnadu, both demand our attention right now. The international relations discourse has accommodated the term intermestic which recognises a factor which lies at the interface of the international and the domestic.
We saw a perfect example not so long ago when Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s coalition collapsed. Gujral who visited several neighbouring countries had expounded what came to be termed ‘the Gujral doctrine’.
In any dispute with a neighbour, a small neighbour in particular, and they all are, India would do its utmost to accommodate the neighbour. Talking to him after he had addressed an unsually large audience at the Bandaranaike Centre (He was plain Mr. Gujral then). I recognised an honest man fallen among politicians.
He didn’t last long and it was the DMK that pulled the rug under the loosely-knit Gujral coalition.
Tamilnadu was the first separatist threat that confronted Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. A veteran Gandhian, Pottu Sri Ramulu, commenced a fast-unto-death. His cause? Self-government or a separate state. Nehru found a formula, re-draw the internal borders of British India. And so, Tamilnadu, and other states. And so we have the north-east merger as the basic demand of the LTTE.
Who killed Rajiv Gandhi?
In a way it was the Jain Commission report that turned the spotlight on the Gandhi family, and indirectly Sonia, the widow.
In an interim report which led to last week’s polls, Sonia Gandhi played her cards quite cleverly. Leading the Congress campaign in what were only provincial polls, she made it a test of Indian political opinion.
Four states were involved. That was quite enough for a battleground, once the media decided it was in fact “a big story” a mid-term test of the BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his not-so grand coalition. At the end of the day, what was the most significant result or outcome?
Sonia, Sonia, Sonia, the first name of the Italian-born widow of the assassinated Rajiv Gandhi was a household name in town and poorest village, thanks of course to “the little box” (Indian-made) in every tea kiosk and coffee shop.
Since it was Sri Lanka that produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister, students of democratic politics should note this trend in our big neighbour, the most populous democracy.
As for Prime Minister Vajpayee and the Hindu-nationalists Bharatiya Janata Party, the Janata deserted the party, attracted by “a foreign woman”, a term used rather crudely in remote rural electorates by BJP rabble-rousers who took this “foreign woman” as a poor challenge. In the end simple “Sonia” is now a household name with no help from any professional “Ad” agency.
If this was in fact true, many commentators called it a mini-referendum. BJP policy-makers and campaign strategists as well as neutral observers have to realise that it was L.K. Advani who made his point, and had it accepted by the Indian voter, poor it may be but India is a recognised member of the exclusive Nuclear Weapons Club.
That was the message which neighbours and the Big Powers must now accept. From Islamabad to Dhaka and Beijing, the voting patterns would be an object of serious analysis and scrutiny.
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