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THERE WILL BE enormous sympathy and respect for Sonia Gandhi's decision to turn down the Prime Ministership of a country of one billion people after leading her party to a position of advantage that was least expected during the run-up to the 14th general election. After a precipitous decline over the past decade, the Congress has experienced a revival of fortunes under Ms. Gandhi's leadership, reflecting the effectiveness of clever new alliances she made in key States on top of a modest upsurge in popular support that she led from the front. The Congress upset all electoral calculations and poll predictions by emerging as the single largest party and the spearhead of the single largest pre-election formation in the new Lok Sabha. It was a hard-worked victory earned through a decent, issue-based campaign that refused to respond in kind to highly personalised attacks targeting, among other things, Ms. Gandhi's foreign origin and `antecedents'. As the world watched, she was first elected leader of the Congress parliamentary party, which in effect meant Prime Minister-designate; was endorsed by the party's pre-election allies, by the Left and by other secular parties, who gave letters of support signifying a comfortable majority in a House of 543; then came up with her extraordinary act of political renunciation — and stuck to her decision in volatile circumstances.

There will be speculation about the considerations behind this development, but the following explanation will go some way. First, the 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," but that her belated, conspicuously reluctant entry into national politics was to further a cause — "to defend the secular foundations of our nation and the poor of our country." With such a vision, she worked to revive the fortunes of her party, as a way of checking the advance of highly divisive communal politics. "Our foremost responsibility at this critical time," she explained, "is to provide India with a secular government that is strong and stable." After all, as she has pointed out in informal conversations and, more recently, in interviews, she could have been Prime Minister in 1991 had she wanted to, in the highly abnormal circumstances that followed her husband's assassination. Secondly, Ms. Gandhi has signalled in a subtle manner that, since her aim is to defend India's secular foundations by providing a stable, people-oriented government, she does not wish to be the cause of, or pretext for, confrontation and ugly chauvinistic politics. Thirdly, she has made a moral point (whether others buy it or not): "power in itself," raw power, "has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal." Finally and importantly, there are the personal considerations. In addition to Ms. Gandhi's personal goals and "inner voice," it is clear that her son and daughter firmly support her personal decision not to be Prime Minister, not the least because they fear for her safety and happiness.

Ms. Gandhi's stunning act of self-denial and political renunciation cannot be allowed to be seen as an endorsement of the vicious campaign that the Sushma Swarajs, the Uma Bhartis, the Govindacharyas and the rest in the sangh parivar have launched to block and subvert the electoral verdict. The likes of Ms. Swaraj centred their political campaign on Ms. Gandhi, her `foreignness' and her presumed unfitness to be Prime Minister (although they had made no fuss, it must be recalled, in dealing with her as Leader of the Opposition). People did not buy the argument. In no democracy are losers in an election entitled to overrule the umpire on who won and who lost. As for narrow-minded interpretations of `Indianness' and `foreignness', Mahatma Gandhi anticipated the real issues while visualising the Constitution of India as something based on universal values applied to the particular conditions of India. As early as 1931, he promised to strive for a Constitution that would "release India from all thraldom and patronage" but made it clear that "all interests not in conflict with the interests of the dumb millions will be scrupulously respected whether foreign or indigenous," and that personally speaking he hated "the distinction between foreign and indigenous." Having made her point, the Italian-born Congress president who could have been Prime Minister by Wednesday has grown enormously in political and moral stature. The new coalition government that will be led by Manmohan Singh has the opportunity to build on this advantage and get off to a fine start.

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