Sonia Gandhi, the Teflon-coated puppeteer behind the Indian government may have met her Rubicon. Police tried to push it back again today with tear gas, water cannons and batons. But it refuses to quell.
The fateful choice came to a head with a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who was so brutally gang raped and beaten in the capital city of Delhi last Sunday that she is unable to eat, drink, move or talk. Doctors removed her intestine to prevent gangrene and her speech and immune system are compromised.
All she did was travel on a small bus with a male friend soon after 9 pm thinking it was authorized by Delhi’s transport system. The five other occupants and driver set upon them with iron rods and gang raped her, before throwing them on the roadside.
Outraged citizens have been protesting continually near Parliament and outside Gandhi’s house. She stepped out twice to pledge investigation and quick punishment for the men, all of whom are in police custody. But anger is unabated and people are calling for death by hanging.
The second time, she was accompanied by son Rahul, who she is grooming for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. Both failed to calm the anger. Police are using force to disperse the peaceful protestors but they doggedly return.
For nearly two decades, Gandhi has been the cement keeping India’s 125-year-old Congress Party together because the poor revere her as being on their side. Widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was murdered by a terrorist in 1991, she helped the Congress to victory in 2004 and was re-elected as its President for a third term earlier this year.
The Gandhi name gives her dynastic power but she is also a consummate axe man, victor of several battles among Congress warlords. Her cunning has helped to turn the opposition BJP party into a wobbly mess. For 8 years, she has been the puppeteer behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress-led coalition in Delhi. She is thoroughly Teflon coated because India’s ruthless media, which regularly berates politicians including Singh, rarely criticizes her.
However, at least two events in December 2012 may prove to be the start of her undoing. A tough BJP politician, Narendra Modi became a credible rival to her son for the Prime Minister’s job by winning re-election as Chief Minister of Gujarat State two days ago.
Gandhi and much of the national media despise him as an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist, leading Washington and Europe to ostracize him. But Gujarat is India’s most industrialized State and the British ambassador hungry for business opened the door to Modi’s rehabilitation by travelling to formally meet him in October, after 10 years.
The hugely emotion-charged rape issue now on Gandhi’s doorstep compounds the challenges to her son and her party’s hold on power. Women are India’s largest vote bank and their leaders are furious. Very quickly, the heinous rape has become a poisoned chalice, brewed of gender discrimination, women’s poverty, domestic and societal violence against women, unpunished rape and trial processes that humiliate the victim. Harsh police tactics are making matters worse.
Gandhi is at the pinnacle of national leadership, so many organizations look to her for strong action. Hiding behind long inquiries or new laws will not do, anymore. The protestors want concrete actions to make women less vulnerable. That involves changing centuries of social behavior, literally. Tough laws have been in place for decades but local politicians and police soft-pedal them to avoid trouble with violence-prone traditionalists.
There is enough outrage now to grab the opportunity in this crisis but Gandhi has not yet spoken up strongly or even clearly. She may number her own days at the top, if she stays on this side of the Rubicon by hesitating or failing to be forceful enough.
If she crosses, she will have to go all the way to defy one of the darkest resident evils in India and almost every other land. She may gain votes but also lose many among arch-conservatives, who prowl in large numbers across India as in almost every other land.
UPDATE: CNN video on Indian Prime Minister calling for calm as the anti-rape rallies turn violent.