INDIA--Shortly after I was transferred to the New Delhi Bureau in January, I had an opportunity to cover an election--a “festival” of Indian democracy.
In Indian politics, that means the accession of power within the family--derided as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Hereditary politicians are also not rare in Japan, but India stands out in this regard.
Rahul Gandhi--the 41-year-old general-secretary of the Indian National Congress, which leads the ruling coalition of the central government--was spearheading the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
If Rahul becomes prime minister, that means one family will have churned out the top leaders of a nation over four generations. And India has no shortage of political families.
Democracy and power heredity, which seem to contradict each other, have been rolling along in tandem here.
To see how the two things were working, I followed Rahul on the campaign trail. In early February, when his campaign got into full swing, I arrived at the venue of a rally in Milkipur, in the eastern part of the state, around an hour before its scheduled start. Many people had already gathered there from nearby villages and towns. A three-meter-high stage with a large poster of Rahul had been set up in a vacant lot surrounded by wheat fields.
But a 20-meter-wide buffer area had been laid between the stage and the audience, and sturdy two-meter wood fences had been erected around the stage in two layers. What’s more, people had to go through body searches to enter the venue.
I thought, “All these will deny Rahul interaction with his supporters.”
But security measures as tight as that for Japan’s prime minister were understandable, given that his grandmother, Indira, and father, Rajiv, both former prime ministers, had been assassinated.
At this appearance, Rahul failed to show up even long after the scheduled starting time. Candidates and senior party officials in the state made speeches one after another to keep the people from being bored. Many of the speakers praised him passionately.
“Rahul will definitely become prime minister in the next general election. Let Congress win in this poll to give him power,” a female supporter said, triggering a big round of applause.
Around an hour behind schedule, the sound of a helicopter came from above. Upon landing near the site, it stirred up a big dust storm, the grains of sand falling on the people, who had waited a long time for his appearance. While I was busy shielding my camera from the dust, the people, seemingly not bothered by the sand, greeted Rahul with great cheers after the winds from the chopper died down.
He ascended to the stage, answering the chants, “Long live, Rahul Gandhi!” Soon after seating himself, he began fiddling with his cellphone. Following speeches by candidates, he spoke for about seven minutes, and was whisked away for the next destination in the flying vehicle, leaving the audience in the dust again. His visit lasted only 20 minutes.
Following the rally, a question occurred to me.
“Will his party really gain support from this?” Though he forced people to wait, he left them without even shaking any hands, showering them with dust instead. In Japan, where I have covered many elections, a campaign conducted in this fashion would result in a candidate being unsuccessful.
And in the strong atmosphere of adoring Rahul, the rally didn’t look like an event for a politician seeking support but a session for supporters who had invited a politician as a guest.
“People here don’t care about being forced to wait,” a local reporter who was also covering the event explained. “If he comes here too early instead, he will lose the dignity of being a big shot. His dramatic arrival by helicopter from the air lifts his charisma because that gives people the impression that he is a noble person far above them.”
India, with a population of 1.2 billion, is often described as the world’s largest democracy. In developing countries, democracy is unstable more often than not, as neighboring Pakistan, which broke away from India in 1947, had experienced military rule for many years.
But India, though the poor occupy a large share of the population, has maintained a political framework of choosing a government through free elections since its independence.
The parliament election was held in Uttar Pradesh state, with more than 200 million people, exceeding Japan’s population of nearly 130 million. The poll in India’s most populous state in the north attracted attention because it would predict the nation’s general election due to be called within some two years.
In it, Rahul represented the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family. His great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was the nation’s first prime minister. It is said that he will succeed his mother, Sonia Gandhi, 65, in the near future as president of Congress. In this campaign, his political skills were being tested as a prospective prime minister.
Rahul followed a traditional campaign style to attract respect and support from poor people by creating the image that political leaders are above the clouds.
Mayawati--chief minister of the Uttar Pradesh state and leader of the governing party of the state, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)--did the same. The Congress and Mayawati’s party were engaging in fierce exchanges criticizing with each other. A rally held by her party in Faizabad, near Milkipur, the following day was like a replay of Rahul’s--a high stage, two layers of fences, chants of “Long live,” being significantly late and emerging from a helicopter.
In the rally for Mayawati, who was feared as a “queen” for her high-handed political style, she sedately occupied a big white seat at the stage center, with candidates kept standing behind her.
After the campaign continued for another month, the election results were announced on March 6. The Congress won just 28 seats in the 403-member chamber, forcing Rahul to make a concession speech. The BSP, meanwhile, lost many seats to fall into a status as an opposition party.
As the main reasons for their defeats, observers pointed out the weak party base in the state for the Congress, and Mayawati’s autocratic methods for the BSP. I don’t know whether both parties’ setbacks were caused by their campaign holding many rallies that made them appear aloof.
But the fact is that the Samajwadi Party swept to a single-party majority. Led by Akhilesh Yadav, 38, the party staged a grass-roots drive, in which candidates and officials combed the entire state by bicycle and car, eventually leaving the Congress and BSP in the dust.
Akhilesh, a son of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, 72, is also a second-generation politician. Akhilesh later became the youngest chief minister of the state.
Although the defeated Rahul is still seen as taking over as Congress leader, the timing has become more uncertain.
Indian politics has been, and will be, reliant on and propelled by the two wheels of election and heredity.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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