Tuesday, March 23, 2004

a reluctant heir

Sonia: A biography, by Rasheed Kidwai, Penguin India (December 2003). Hardcover. ISBN: 0670049557. Price US$8.8, 256 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in March 2004).

When journalist Rasheed Kidwai set out to write an unauthorized biography of Sonia Gandhi, many were not optimistic about his chances. The Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is notoriously tightlipped with the media, and she is hardly likely to be any more friendly to a biographer - always seen here as hagiographer or character assassin. But Kidwai was not dissuaded. If anything, the difficulties he would face in gathering material for his book gave him new inspiration to write it. Though the president of India's illustrious Congress Party had scores of sycophants and legions of critics, nobody had managed "an objective evaluation of her life".

Without a doubt, Sonia is one of the most intriguing figures in Indian political life. Like many of the more appealing public personalities, she became part of Indian history accidentally, and with some reluctance, as a victim of circumstance. When she married Rajiv Gandhi - no relation to Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi - in 1968, the scion of the Congress party's hereditary dynasty claimed to have no interest in following in the footsteps of his mother Indira Gandhi and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru (both premiers). Rajiv was a commercial pilot, and more than happy to leave the political wrangling to his brother, Sanjay. Nevertheless, Sonia's entrance into the political family required her to remake herself as an Indian bahu, or daughter-in-law, deferent and traditional. And when her husband entered politics in 1984, winning the prime minister's post by a landslide after the assassination of his mother, Indira, Sonia was forced fully into the limelight. She tried to keep away from politics and lead a normal life during her husband's term as premier, but this was a decision that would come back to haunt her, as it founded her image as "an inscrutable person, constantly tense, aloof and cold".

Kidwai's biography deals primarily with the period of Sonia's life leading up to her selection as the Congress party president, several years after Rajiv was assassinated in 1991. As a cub reporter with a Congress-allied paper, Kidwai was one of the few journalists who stuck by the then-lackluster widow for the months following her husband's death. During that period, Kidwai said in a telephone interview, Sonia never discouraged Congress leaders from coming and meeting her, so "although she didn't join politics, she became a sort of listening post". Knowing the leader from these days, Kidwai offers an interesting insight into her personality and motivations - which are still mostly unknown, even as she mounts her second run for prime minister against incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which forms the lead party in the ruling coalition.

"One needs to look at it in a very human way," Kidwai says. "She came from a far away place - she didn't come from Rome, she was in a very small place in Italy. Indians know a lot about the UK and English people know a fair amount about India, but Italy is very far from us. Her family knew very little about India. Her father was very opposed to this marriage. Her father died in 1988 without ever visiting India, even when Indira died or the birth of Priyanka and Rahul [Sonia's children]." With all this distance in the background, Kidwai says, when the Congress offered her the mantle of leadership, it came as a shock. She was still grieving for her husband, and suddenly she was thrust into a world of Machiavellian intrigues, with everyone seeking to use her to further their own ambitions.

While it does get bogged down in the details of the petty rivalries and backroom deals of the Congress party, this section of Kidwai's biography, which comprises the bulk of the book, also provides an excellent history of the woes that have brought the once unassailable political party into its present disarray. Kidwai traces how, without a Nehru or Gandhi to lead them, rival factions nearly split the Congress on several occasions, until finally the cabal of leaders prevailed on Sonia to take charge as leader. Not surprisingly, it was a compromise destined for trouble, as many saw Sonia as a neophyte they could turn to their advantage, but it did prevent a schism. Today, though, many blame Rajiv's widow for the Congress' failure to defeat the BJP, forgetting to credit her with arresting its precipitous decline.

Kidwai's recapitulation of Sonia's achievements is useful. Along with holding together her fractious supporters, he also credits the Congress party president for the elimination of "black" or untraceable money from the party's finances, the steadfast support of a bill that would allot a quota of seats in the parliament to women and a new, more democratic operating style. The latter move - a change in demeanor from the autocratic methods of Indira and Rajiv, who ushered in and shunted out state chief ministers as a matter of course - has helped her to marshal her troops and makes it very unlikely that a leader will emerge to oppose her within the party, despite some grousing that the Congress should not be led by a foreigner.

But for all Kidwai's skill as political analyst, the biography suffers from an impersonal feel, perhaps because he was denied regular access to his subject. The portrait that emerges is that of a political leader, as Kidwai concerns himself chiefly with Sonia's political choices as he attempts to sketch out her ideology. And while that may prove useful to Indian voters (and journalists) as the Congress president ramps up her campaign for national elections in April and May, it gives the book a dry, academic tone. Just as Sonia's stern face hasn't endeared her to the public as India's Jackie Kennedy - whose trials are in many respects paralleled by her own - this serious biography is likely to hold the interest only of scholars and committed policy wonks.


sonia on the ropes

Politics has never been easy for Sonia Gandhi, yet she's grown ever more adept at remaking both herself and her once-dominant party. Now, as elections loom, is it all too little, too late?

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2004).

SONIA GANDHI didn't come to Kaudiram, a crowded and dusty town in Uttar Pradesh, to pull her punches. Over a booming public-address system set up at the city bus station, the Italian-born president of India's Congress Party kicked off her national election campaign with a strident assault on the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Calling Vajpayee's government incompetent and corrupt, the custodian of the dynasty begun by Jawaharlal Nehru unveiled a new willingness to go for the throat.

With polls approaching in April, the Congress Party--credited with gaining India's independence from Britain--is fighting for survival. It was defeated in the country's last two national elections and suffered disastrous losses in December's state assembly polls. If Vajpayee wins a third term as prime minister, it will be the first time anyone from outside the Congress has managed the feat. A second victory over Sonia would also signal an end to the politics of hereditary dynasties that have shaped India's history since 1947.

"The last person from the Gandhi family who won elections for Congress was Mrs. Gandhi's dead body in 1984," says Pramod Mahajan, chief campaign strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant partner in India's governing coalition. Since that election, when Congress won 400-plus parliamentary seats after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party's performance has steadily waned.

The BJP, meanwhile, has gone from two seats in 1984 to 180 today, and is tipped to do even better this time out. Vajpayee, a 50-year election veteran and brilliant orator, leads India at a time of political d├ętente with Pakistan and with the economy booming. By contrast, Gandhi is facing probably her toughest challenge yet in what has always been a reluctant political career--one that only began when, first, her mother-in-law, Indira, and later her husband, Rajiv, were killed by assassins.

Faced with this crisis, Sonia has begun to reinvent herself and the party. She has finally become a politician--seeking friends and embracing the media. Few doubt she has made a genuine attempt to turn Congress--and herself--around, but the question remains, is it all too little, too late?

As the young and exotic wife of Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of India's first family, and then as his grieving widow, Sonia might well have become India's Jackie O. But because of her own reluctance to sacrifice her private life, and her advisers' desire to "protect" and thereby control her, she instead became India's Al Gore--seen to be clumsily acting out the instructions of a coterie of handlers. "She's still uncomfortable being a politician," explains Rajesh Tripathi, a Congress leader. "With people she's not at ease. She doesn't have the quality that her mother-in-law had, and Rajiv was a natural also."

Sonia Gandhi only entered active politics in 1998, seven years after Rajiv's assassination, when she finally yielded to Congress leaders' pleas and took over the helm of the party her husband once led. Although still relatively inexperienced, her confidence has appeared to grow in the role. "In the last seven years, she has matured," says Digvijay Singh, former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and one of Sonia's closest advisers. "She's understanding the issues, she's taking stands."

Singh, along with other pundits, saw the emergence of this new avatar when Sonia, as leader of the opposition, delivered a withering motion of no confidence in the Vajpayee government in August. "The very fact that her charge sheet was never replied to [by Vajpayee]" illustrates how much better she's become at the game, says Singh.

Singh credits Sonia for her democratic style, which has brought "consensus politics" to the Congress. In party meetings, she prefers to listen to all sides before weighing in with her opinion. She takes copious notes, which discourages party members from flip-flopping on their stands. Unlike Indira and Rajiv, she doesn't try to micromanage the states under Congress' control, and that has won her respect, if not the awe her predecessors inspired.

But that consultative approach has its limitations, Singh admits: "The leader has to lead, rather than be led." Today, he says, the Gandhi widow has begun to do precisely that.

To start, Gandhi worked to convince Congress that unless it worked with other parties it had no chance of regaining power. Realizing that the once-dominant Congress would have to show humility, she opted to leave the party's choice for prime minister open for now, and has emphasized repeatedly that the party and its partners will select their leader--together--only after the polls. That's a clear change of tactics from 1999, when the election was seen as a presidential-style race between Vajpayee and Gandhi. That move, coupled with personal approaches by Gandhi, has won Congress some potentially important allies in the electorally significant states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

More importantly, perhaps, Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow--who did not become an Indian citizen until 1983--has also realized that her surname won't be enough to win her the election. She hit the campaign trail with a new political personality, endeavouring to overcome her natural reserve and, if such a thing can be accomplished by an act of will, to make herself lovable. Her first target: Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

When Sonia embarked on a gruelling, three-day pilgrimage through the eastern part of the state in February, thousands of villagers lined the road along her convoy's route. In some places they were crowded on rooftops and gathered four rows deep on the roadside. "This is how you have to reach these people," says Congress's Rajesh Tripathi, who travelled with the convoy.

And yet, he adds, "she has to do it more intensely. She has to have more exposure, and it has to be an audience like this." Those comments reflect a common perception of Gandhi's relationship with the voters. "Her basic problem remains the same," says Rasheed Kidwai, veteran reporter and author of Sonia, an unauthorized biography of the Congress president. "She's not very open. That's her nature."

So why does she do it--why did she decide to leave the privacy of domestic life and plunge into Indian politics? Tripathi recalls once asking her a similar question. "Do you really think I have a choice?" she replied.

"Over a period of time," comments Kidwai, "she slowly got into believing that the party needed her, the country needed her, and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty demanded that she keep the communal forces at bay." A turning point came in 1992, when the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu fanatics stirred to passion by BJP stalwarts L.K. Advani and Uma Bharti, now deputy prime minister and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, respectively. According to Singh, it was this "absolute" commitment to the fight against the various chauvinist groups threatening Nehru's idea of India that brought Sonia into the fray--after much pressure from the party.

"She's the only person who has a global vision . . . that goes beyond a parochial, local, regional view," echoes Salman Khurshid, former Congress president in Uttar Pradesh. "Then she is extremely secular and extremely liberal, again, in the mould in which we had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and so on. Maybe we're not being able to sell it properly, but that should be a strength."

Indeed, Congress's "selling" of Sonia has at times been lamentable. Incomprehensibly for a major politician, Sonia, who speaks fluent, if heavily accented, Hindi, waited until late in the campaign before giving her first-ever extensive interview, in two appearances on the television programme Walk the Talk with Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. That reticence contrasts sharply with the openness of the avuncular Vajpayee. "She's absolutely an unknown entity," says Kidwai. "People are prepared to accept shortcomings. . . . The issue of foreign origins--the Indian people are prepared to accept that--but they want to know who she is, and what she is all about."

In a signal that her opponents smell blood in the water, early on the BJP took to calling this campaign a contest between Vajpayee and "the Question Mark." Sonia's appearances on Walk the Talk seemed an effort at rebuttal. The results were mixed. While Gandhi shed some of her reserve and occasionally seemed to speak from the heart, her suspicions about her interviewer's motives were transparent, and at one point she allowed herself to be trapped into parrying a question with a damning, "I wouldn't want to discuss it now."

For the time being, at least, the party's answer appears to be more Gandhi, rather than less. Congress workers are pushing Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, to join the campaign. That hints at another reason why the party's president soldiers on: She knows this is a relay race and she's carrying the torch.

Will she falter? Is this the end of the dynasty? The BJP is bullish: "I'm afraid this time they may not even get the three-figure mark" in seats, says Mahajan, the campaign strategist. While there is some speculation that Gandhi may step down if Congress does as badly as predicted, Mahajan--like many others--believes that for now she's all Congress has. "Sonia is their biggest liability, and still she is their biggest asset because there is no [other] unifying force," he adds. "It's a Catch-22 situation for them."

Sonia herself has said she'll take losing in stride, if she has to. Asked on television if a loss would spell the end of her political career, she responded: "I have certain duties which I have to fulfil, about which I have spoken earlier. And there's no turning back."


boom times--but no jobs

Gaudy economic-growth numbers can't solve a simmering unemployment crisis

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in March 2004).

In general elections next month, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is campaigning, Reagan-like, on the theme that the country is "shining." These are, in fact, heady days for India, which has witnessed average economic growth of 5.6 percent over the BJP's current five-year reign. Buoyed by a booming stock market and reports that the country's GDP rose by an even stronger 8 percent during the third quarter, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recently crowed at a political gathering, "Our growth rate has surprised the world." The prime minister also took issue with his critics, who, he said, claim "that [people] are not seeing the rapid economic progress made by the country. There is overall satisfaction," said Vajpayee.

That depends on whom you ask. While millions of citizens have benefited from the country's recent boom—especially those in the IT and outsourcing sectors clustered around cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad—hundreds of millions more are in danger of being left behind. India's jobless rate last year was a seemingly manageable 8 percent. But with the country's population surging, the numbers of people out of work or underemployed have been rising steadily. According to the government's Planning Commission, more than 40 million Indians are registered with employment exchanges, and population projections suggest that 35 million new workers will join the country's labor force by 2007. That means India will need to create a staggering 75 million jobs over the next three years, according to the consultancy McKinsey & Co.—assuming full employment.

That isn't going to happen. India is creating new jobs, but not nearly enough of them to keep up with the ferocious demand for work. Between 1994 and 2000, India's rate of new-job growth was a paltry 1.07 percent. With the working-age population (15 to 60) set to balloon, the country could face social unrest unless it can find ways to funnel a mass of poorly educated people into decent jobs.

The current conundrum is a function of population growth and the country's modernization drive. In 1991 India abandoned its socialist, planned economy and began to open various industries to private competition. Some state firms were privatized; others were made more efficient. Since 1997 the public sector has eliminated 4.5 million jobs—or roughly 15 percent of its work force. The private sector was supposed to make up the difference through rapid growth, but instead has slashed a million jobs of its own over the last seven years.

One problem is the nature of India's success story. It's largely the result of investments in technology and in more modern manufacturing methods—a capital-intensive economic strategy that emphasizes productivity and efficiency, getting more output out of existing workers. "The private sector is growing very fast," says S. P. Gupta, chairman of the employment section at the Planning Commission. "But the high-tech [strategy] essentially means jobless growth." Shirish Sankhe, a principal at McKinsey & Co. in Mumbai, agrees. "There are productivity enhancements happening all over the country, especially in sectors where the government is still a big employer, like banking, steel and telecommunications. So despite a huge growth in output, you will see low growth in employment because productivity is very low."

That's certainly true in India's biggest industry. Some 60 percent of India's population—more than 600 million people—still earn their livelihood from farming. The industry is labor intensive and uses almost no machines. As machinery gradually comes into use, however, many farm workers will become redundant. "China pulls 1 percent of its people out of agriculture and [puts them] into construction or light manufacturing every year," says Sankhe. That's a feat that India is not likely to match.

To expand job-heavy industries like construction, manufacturing and retail would require pushing ahead with politically unpalatable reforms, encouraging more foreign investment—and putting an end to lingering socialist ideas. For example, manufacturing regulations limit the amount that clothing and textile makers can spend on new plants. The policy, which can be traced all the way back to Mahatma Gandhi's anti-British "buy Indian" movement, both protects inefficient operations and prevents them from growing. The same bias hampers the vitality of retail businesses, where a ban on foreign direct investment has stopped companies like Wal-Mart and Carrefour from entering the market.

The construction business suffers because rent-control and zoning laws prevent the development of valuable plots of land in city centers for new retail outlets. Despite the high price of land, thousands of tenants in the heart of Old Delhi, for example, pay as little as 10 rupees (US$.25) a month in rent. The archaic policies have limited growth rates in all these sectors to half or less of the rates in the same industries in China.

In those businesses where foreign investment is strongest, job growth as been impressive. "Foreign companies are creating huge numbers of back-office jobs in India for tasks like inventory, payroll processing and customer service," says McKinsey's Sankhe. "But that should be happening in manufacturing as well." That process has begun in the automotive industry. After the government lifted curbs on investment in the sector in the early 1990s, output began to take off. The industry's labor force grew by 11 percent from 1992 to 2000, even as productivity more than doubled. Today, the sector directly and indirectly provides jobs for more than 10 million Indians—and the business is expected to expand even more as Indian-made cars begin to sell in foreign markets.

Unsurprisingly, Indian experts and outside consultancies have different views on how best to create jobs. While Western-trained experts believe India should push ahead with reforms as rapidly as possible, the Planning Commission doesn't think a purely growth-oriented strategy will solve the unemployment problem. It recommends that the government focus on protecting and stimulating what it calls the "unorganized sector"—meaning nonregistered, small, mom-and-pop-style businesses.

India's informal sector accounts at present for 92 percent of India's jobs and nearly 60 percent of GDP. But India's small companies must become much more productive before they can expand and, potentially, create jobs. Experts say making small firms more productive is a much more difficult task than simply enacting the broad-brush reforms that are speeding the growth of big manufacturers. Informal firms need low-cost credit, access to better technology and enhanced knowledge of marketing and cost control. None of these things can be created by merely striking laws from the books. "In a country like India, substantive employment growth will have to be in the rural sector, and that's linked to a whole [array] of labor- and business-law changes that have not been implemented," says Bibek Debroy, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Development Studies. The government, he adds, must eliminate preferential policies that allow small firms to compete with larger rural companies.

Much of India's jobless are concentrated in a handful of poorly governed states with enormous, uneducated populations. Among the worst are Bihar and Assam—where a recent riot among thousands of job applicants for positions with Indian Railways resulted in more than 30 deaths. The situation is also dire in West Bengal and Kerala, where communist governments have increased the literacy rate but fostered strong labor unions that have stifled employment growth. In Kerala, the unemployment rate has topped 20 percent, while in West Bengal 15 percent of the population is jobless. Until numbers like that come down, it will be hard for Vajpayee to claim it's truly morning in India.