The Greatest Woman in the World

The greatest woman in the world is someone no one would have expected a decade ago.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.