By SOMINI SENGUPTA–
NEW DELHI – Eleven years ago, when she took over as president of India’s oldest political party, Sonia Gandhi was seen as India’s most improbable politician: a foreigner with a shaky command of Hindi, reclusive to the point of seeming aloof, a wife who had fought to keep her husband from joining politics and who lost him to an assassination.
Today, Mrs. Gandhi, 62, is credited with having scored a stunning political coup. Her Indian National Congress party made its best performance in 25 years in the parliamentary elections completed last week, picking up 205 of 543 seats on its own, and with its coalition partners coming only 12 seats shy of an outright majority. All it needs to do now to form a government is stitch up alliances with a handful of independents and small parties.
No longer would it be beholden to the many small party bosses that it needed during the first five-year term a Congress-led coalition was in office. Most important, for the sake of foreign and economic policy, it would no longer have to rely on India’s Communist parties to stay in power, as it had for most of that time.
“Cong Gets Free Hand,” screamed the front-page banner headline in The Times of India on Sunday. It featured a photograph of Mrs. Gandhi dressed in a red-ochre sari, ushering the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to a podium to address the news media.
Meghnad Desai, an Indian-born economist and a member of the British House of Lords, went as far as to compare her to Catherine the Great, the powerful German-born empress of Russia.
Mrs. Gandhi is the Italian-born wife of the slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of the prime minister before him, Indira Gandhi. She is known for rarely giving interviews, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.
She has said she joined politics to save the legacy of the party, which her husband’s family has been associated with since before independence. “I had to accustom myself to the public gaze, which I found intrusive and hard to endure,” she said in a speech at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands two years ago.
Critics say she is simply paving the way for her son, Rahul, 38, who is expected to take a cabinet post in the new government. The party’s often-slavish devotion to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, perhaps its biggest albatross, was evident over the weekend.
On Saturday evening, hours after the election results signaled the victory of the Congress-led coalition, a party leader and minister assigned to Mr. Singh’s office, Prithviraj Chavan, declared on television that Mr. Gandhi could become prime minister whenever he wished. This was after Mrs. Gandhi and her son had repeatedly endorsed Mr. Singh as the party’s choice for the top post.
The Congress landslide was all the more remarkable because it defied an Indian tradition of anti-incumbency. The Congress-led coalition, which routed the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004, was not only re-elected but it picked up 57 seats.
Students of Indian politics pointed to several factors.
First, under Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress-led coalition homed in on the rural poor. During its first term, buoyed by robust economic growth, it used record government revenues to increase social spending, not just raising health and education budgets, but also starting an ambitious public works program in the countryside and a costly loan repayment waiver for farmers.
Second, she masterly cast herself as a leader who relinquished power, turning down her party’s appeals to become prime minister, first in 2004 and again this time. Instead, she chose the soft-spoken economist, Mr. Singh, and between them, they divvied up the job: she took care of the hard-knuckles politics of keeping the coalition together, while he served as the chief executive, albeit one who was always seen as subservient.
“She remade him,” said Mr. Desai, a longtime friend of the prime minister. “This victory is as much due to him as to her. He has made dynasty palatable.”
During the election season, the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to portray the prime minister as weak. It accused his government of being ineffective against a spate of terrorist attacks and unable to tackle a worldwide economic crisis, which is beginning to be felt here.
The opposition strategy did not pay off. Its coalition trailed with 159 seats, while a third alliance, spearheaded by Communists, won fewer than 80 seats.
Even with a free hand, the Congress-led government will face formidable challenges. India needs to swiftly build roads, highways and power plants; improve public schools and build universities for a swelling young population; and hire nurses and doctors for its feeble public health system.
Most of all, it needs to address its abiding poverty. Despite over a decade of high economic growth in India, 300 million people remain below the poverty line. Large tracts of the country are racked by a Maoist insurgency. And for the first time in years, growth rates have dipped sharply and the deficit has ballooned.
Whether the new administration will fast-track economic reforms, as many business leaders urge, is questionable. Congress politicians, executives and analysts are already tempering expectations.
Kapil Sibal, a Congress member of Parliament from Delhi, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that he expected the new administration to “send a signal” that it would advance reforms that had been stalled during the past five years but would make no “sudden shift” in policies. It would be unrealistic to expect labor law reform in a country with no safety net to speak of, he said, or to expect a greater openness in the banking and insurance sectors in the face of the global financial crisis.
Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys, one of the country’s largest technology companies, said Sunday that the government’s immediate priorities should be to raise economic growth and enact a broad set of reforms “that will widen access to both opportunities and public services.”
“We need reforms in higher education, we need reforms in empowering our cities, we need reforms in national security,” he said. “Reforms will cover a diverse set of issues, unencumbered by allies holding them back.”
Not least, Congress will have to keep its promise to the rural poor. Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, campaigned on a pledge to expand the public jobs program and deepen food subsidies for the poor.
Mother and son face a crucial political challenge as well: how to open access to a party that critics compare to a family-owned company. Mr. Gandhi has been most explicit in calling for internal party democracy. He says he can make that kind of demand because he is a Gandhi.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
source: The New York Times
By THOM SHANKER and DAVID E. SANGER–
WASHINGTON – Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the assessment of the expanded arsenal in a one-word answer to a question on Thursday in the midst of lengthy Senate testimony. Sitting beside Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
“Yes,” he said quickly, adding nothing, clearly cognizant of Pakistan’s sensitivity to any discussion about the country’s nuclear strategy or security.
Inside the Obama administration, some officials say, Pakistan’s drive to spend heavily on new nuclear arms has been a source of growing concern, because the country is producing more nuclear material at a time when Washington is increasingly focused on trying to assure the security of an arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons so that they will never fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents.
The administration’s effort is complicated by the fact that Pakistan is producing an unknown amount of new bomb-grade uranium and, once a series of new reactors is completed, bomb-grade plutonium for a new generation of weapons. President Obama has called for passage of a treaty that would stop all nations from producing more fissile material – the hardest part of making a nuclear weapon – but so far has said nothing in public about Pakistan’s activities.
Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who served as the co-author of Mr. Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, reflected the administration’s concern in a recent interview, saying that Pakistan “has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.”
Obama administration officials said that they had communicated to Congress that their intent was to assure that military aid to Pakistan was directed toward counterterrorism and not diverted. But Admiral Mullen’s public confirmation that the arsenal is increasing – a view widely held in both classified and unclassified analyses – seems certain to aggravate Congress’s discomfort.
Whether that discomfort might result in a delay or reduction in aid to Pakistan is still unclear.
The Congressional briefings have taken place in recent weeks as Pakistan has descended into further chaos and as Congress has considered proposals to spend $3 billion over the next five years to train and equip Pakistan’s military for counterinsurgency warfare. That aid would come on top of $7.5 billion in civilian assistance.
None of the proposed military assistance is directed at the nuclear program. So far, America’s aid to Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure has been limited to a $100 million classified program to help Pakistan secure its weapons and materials from seizure by Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “insiders” with insurgent loyalties.
But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn. The program employs tens of thousands of Pakistanis, including about 2,000 believed to possess “critical knowledge” about how to produce a weapon.
The dimensions of the Pakistani buildup are not fully understood. “We see them scaling up their centrifuge facilities,” said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has been monitoring Pakistan’s continued efforts to buy materials on the black market, and analyzing satellite photographs of two new plutonium reactors less than 100 miles from where Pakistani forces are currently fighting the Taliban.
“The Bush administration turned a blind eye to how this is being ramped up,” he said. “And of course, with enough pressure, all this could be preventable.”
As a matter of diplomacy, however, the buildup presents Mr. Obama with a potential conflict between two national security priorities, some aides concede. One is to win passage of a global agreement to stop the production of fissile material – the uranium or plutonium used to produce weapons. Pakistan has never agreed to any limits and is one of three countries, along with India and Israel, that never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Yet the other imperative is a huge infusion of financial assistance into Afghanistan and Pakistan, money considered crucial to helping stabilize governments with tenuous holds on power in the face of terrorist and insurgent violence.
Senior members of Congress were already pressing for assurances from Pakistan that the American military assistance would be used to fight the insurgency, and not be siphoned off for more conventional military programs to counter Pakistan’s historic adversary, India. Official confirmation that Pakistan has accelerated expansion of its nuclear program only added to the consternation of those in Congress who were already voicing serious concern about the security of those warheads.
During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, veered from the budget proposal under debate to ask Admiral Mullen about public reports “that Pakistan is, at the moment, increasing its nuclear program – that it may be actually adding on to weapons systems and warheads. Do you have any evidence of that?”
It was then that Admiral Mullen responded with his one-word confirmation. Mr. Webb said Pakistan’s decision was a matter of “enormous concern,” and he added, “Do we have any type of control factors that would be built in, in terms of where future American money would be going, as it addresses what I just asked about?”
Similar concerns about seeking guarantees that American military assistance to Pakistan would be focused on battling insurgents also were expressed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee chairman.
“Unless Pakistan’s leaders commit, in deeds and words, their country’s armed forces and security personnel to eliminating the threat from militant extremists, and unless they make it clear that they are doing so, for the sake of their own future, then no amount of assistance will be effective,” Mr. Levin said.
A spokesman for the Pakistani government contacted Friday declined to comment on whether his nation was expanding its nuclear weapons program, but said the government was “maintaining the minimum, credible deterrence capability.” He warned against linking American financial assistance to Pakistan’s actions on its weapons program.
“Conditions or sanctions on this issue did not work in the past, and this will not send a positive message to the people of Pakistan,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his country’s nuclear program is classified.
Source: The New York Times