After winning the War of Independence, George Washington resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon. George III, upon hearing the story, was incredulous: “if he does that,” the monarch is supposed to have said, “then he will be the greatest man in the world.” And the king was right: given the opportunity for power, Washington turned it down.
Well, maybe we are seeing the same thing in India. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the victorious Congress Party, has now turned down the Prime Ministership not once but twice. After an improbable victory in 2004, the job was hers for the taking, and she refused it — instead, giving it to an incorruptible technocrat, Manmohan Singh, who probably couldn’t have even won his parliamentary seat on his own. Cynics might have ascribed that to Gandhi’s fear that the government would be unstable.
But now, she has done it again, announcing less than two hours after the results were released that Singh will stay on — and she will stay out of the government. And she also made it very clear that the new Prime Minister will not be her son, Rahul, who was the very public face of Congress during the election, and would have easily won a vote of Congress members of Parliament. This is a strong blow against corruption in a country where nepotism still remains too much the norm.
Note as well that Sonia Gandhi may have saved the Congress Party, which for all its many flaws, remains the only national party advocating secularism, tolerance and democracy. Before she assumed control of the party, Congress was widely seen as being in inevitable decline, gaining only 114 seats in the 1998 election. Now, under her leadership, it is up to 255.
I’m sure that there are backstories here, and that the real truth is less appetizing than what happens in public. But I’m sure that that was true with Washington, too. Sonia Gandhi’s success — and what she has done with it — is genuinely good news.