The BJP’s triumph lies in taking India to the 21st century, which, ironically, is an inheritance from Rajiv Gandhi
Ms Sonia Gandhi has lost the elections in four states in northern India and may even have jeopardized her credibility as an effective president of the Congress. But in a peculiar way the victory belongs to the vision of India put forward by her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, as much as it does to Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his campaign managers. Rajiv Gandhi spoke of taking India to the 21st century in which India would be modern and economically powerful. The vision, but not the programme, of a liberalized economic regime, was first presented by Indira Gandhi’s eldest son before terrorists cut short his life. He wanted Indians to be proud of their place in the world. Mr Vajpayee has successfully given substance to this vision. India’s economic potential has become obvious to the world and this is being seen as an outcome of Mr Vajpayee’s steadfast adherence to economic reforms and of his remarkable political ability which has given stability to a coalition which had been written off as ramshackle. More than a verdict against the incumbent, the election results reflect the pride that most Indians feel about their self-identity and they see this pride as being directly related to the record of Mr Vajpayee and his government.
This record of Mr Vajpayee is crucially linked to another aspect of his policies which the election results have underlined. Mr Vajpayee has shifted the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party from religion to governance and development. The BJP not so long ago used to declaim the slogan: “proud to be Hindu”. Mr Vajpayee has subtly replaced Hindu with Indian. This has made the BJP appear less sectarian and made Mr Vajpayee recognizable as the prime minister of India and not just of one section of it. In an ineffable but nontheless very tangible way, Mr Vajpayee has been able to touch the chord of pride among Indians which has not been sensed for a very long time.
Ms Gandhi is a natural loser in the project to re-establish the pride of being Indian. Her origins — however much she might try through word and deed to disown that origin — militates against her complete identification with such a project. Moreover, at the core of this pride is liberalization and economic reform which is making India a global economic player. Ms Gandhi, despite the presence of Mr Manmohan Singh in the Congress, is at best a reluctant reformer, at worst a Nehruvian socialist. Here she is more akin to her late mother-in-law than her late husband. Mr Vajpayee and his government have not only taken over Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of taking India to the 21st century but it has also appropriated the programme of economic reforms which Mr Singh pioneered. There is very little that Ms Gandhi can do since there is nothing in her ideological arsenal to reaffirm the national pride of Indians. The Congress has lost its way in the cunning passages of history where the mantle of a young prime minister is now worn by a seventy eight-year-old who knows the pulse of a young, vibrant and hopeful India.