The pundits say that the Indian electorate does not cast votes, but votes castes. This is generally true but at key moments in its postcolonial history, the citizens of the world's largest democracy - India's population is just over a billion - have acted to punish the ruling elites. It is the subaltern's revenge, unpredictable and unpredicted. Almost every Indian pollster forecast another BJP triumph before the election results were announced in May. Few believed that the Italian-born head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty could lead the Congress-dominated alliance to victory. In the 1990s, threatened by a possible challenge from Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, Bill Clinton declared that the American people would never elect a president whose surname ended with an 'o'. In India, the BJP ideologues thought the electorate wouldn't accept an Italian woman. Many others agreed. Several months ago, on a flight to New York, I met someone I had not seen for twenty years. A twig from a minor branch of the old Indian nobility, she said: 'It's a national disgrace that the Congress is being run by an Italian au pair.' I pointed out that since an Englishman had founded the party, the transition to an Italian could be seen as progress and that Sonia Gandhi was surely preferable to the scoundrels in saffron. Conversation dried up. Her liberal days were long over and she was now sympathetic to the BJP: they were the saviours of India.
LRB 8 July 2004 | PDF Download