Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Roman Catholic widow of India’s late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, worked for six years to revive the Congress Party. This was the party her husband’s grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, led when he emerged as the first prime minister of an independent India; the same party that made Nehru’s daughter, Indira, her mother-in-law, prime minister, first in 1966 and again in 1984.
Last May 10, the same day that Filipinos trooped to the polls, Sonia Gandhi, caretaker of a family’s political legacy, led her party to a stunning victory – against all the forecasts of pre-election surveys and exit polls. So clear was the message of Sonia’s triumph that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, promptly resigned, paving the way for Sonia’s selection as India’s new prime minister.
She declined the honor. Someone else from her party, the 71-yearold former finance minister, Manmohan Singh, has taken the job. Showing no vacillation in her decision, Sonia told her supporters: “For the six years that I have been in politics, I have said it many times that the place of the prime minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. I humbly decline the post.”
Her decision shook the party. Many of her leaders, who drew strength from her leadership, threatened to leave if she did not accept the position. They told her not to mind the angry protests of Hindu nationalists from the losing party who could not imagine an India led by a prime minister who was not a natural-born Indian. This is an old issue that the May election results had resolved. But Sonia Gandhi, an Indian citizen from 1983, had no wish to be the focal point of a divisiveness that could inflame sectarian passions and undermine India’s status as a secular democracy.
“All things,” wrote Emerson in an essay on Character, “work exactly according to their quality and according to their quantity, attempt nothing they cannot do, except man only. He has pretension; he wishes and attempts things beyond his force.” Sonia Gandhi knows what she can and must do. What Emerson calls “character” is what she has. She has brought decency back to politics.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had a Gandhian vision on Dec. 30, 2002, when she declared she would not seek the presidency in 2004. She said it bothered her that she had been the focus of so much divisiveness. By sacrificing personal ambition, she hoped she could help bind the nation together. She must have known that from the day the presidency fell on her lap.
Yet in less than a year she changed her mind. She told an adoring throng in Pampanga that she was making the personal sacrifice of foregoing early retirement by offering herself as president for another six years. She complained that her critics continued to attack her after she announced her plan to withdraw from politics in 2004. To the thunderous applause of her followers, she declared the resumption of the battle.
Since 1986, one of the nation’s main problems has been how to normalize political life, or how to put the country back on the constitutional track, after a people power revolution put an end to 13 years of dictatorship. Successive coup attempts attended the country’s rebirth as a democracy, but the successful holding of periodic elections under a new constitution slowly put the nation back on track. Crucial to this process was the presence of a credible and non-partisan electoral body. But the unexpected ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2001 and the massive protests that greeted his arrest on plunder charges once more threatened to derail the nation’s return to normalcy. This was the chief burden of the Gloria presidency.
The Supreme Court had found itself performing the impossible task of legalizing a presidency that was put in place extra-constitutionally. But by shifting the question of Estrada’s ouster from the political to the legal arena, the country succeeded in lowering the political temperature. Even so, the wounds from Edsa II and Edsa III were far from healed. A second chance at normalcy presented itself when the opposition participated in the 2001 midterm elections and won seats in the legislature. Gloria’s Rizal Day renunciation of a new term for herself in 2004 would have given a big boost to the nation’s march to normalcy. As a transition president, she could have played the role of nation-builder at a most critical juncture in the country’s history.
She could have completed the project that Cory Aquino assigned herself in 1986 – the restoration and strengthening of democratic institutions. Like Cory, Gloria had no political debts to repay, and, if she was not running in 2004, no need to incur new ones. Motivated solely by what was good for the nation’s future, she could have ensured the appointment only of the fittest and most credible individuals to the highest courts of the land and to the Commission on Elections. Even if it were the only project she could claim as a transitional leader, the modernization of the country’s elections would have been a monumental achievement, the single most important event in the country’s quest for political modernity.
But Gloria is no Gandhi. Her ambition is greater than the nation. She chose to be a politician when she could have been a healer and unifier. She may well be president for another six years, but one wonders how she will govern a restless nation that no longer looks up to its politicians.
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