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'Only centrist democracy fits India'

Delivering a lecture at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, Sonia speaks at length about her life in India.

world Updated: Jun 10, 2007 19:39 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi says India can "flourish only as a centrist democracy", even as she unveiled her journey "from the placid backwaters of a contented domestic life to the maelstrom of public life", saying she had found both "fulfilment and a larger sense of purpose".

"I am convinced that India can flourish only as a centrist democracy. Over half a century of elections and democratic governance have clearly demonstrated that no government can last if it is seen to pursue narrow interests and is insensitive to the concerns of all sections of our society," Gandhi said.

She was delivering a lecture on "Living Politics: What India Has Taught Me" organised by the Nexus Institute at Tilburg University here.

"India's many identities, languages, faiths and customs cannot coexist peacefully if any one assumes dominance, or if the collective will of the majority denies rights and space to any of the minorities," Gandhi told a select gathering of leaders and academics.

"There can be no doubt that India's tradition of tolerance, synthesis and the ability to live with seeming contradictions has provided fertile soil for democracy to take firm root."

Of her personal transition, Gandhi said: "My journey from the placid backwaters of a contented domestic life to the maelstrom of public life has not been an easy one. Despite its sorrows and difficulties, I have found in my new existence both fulfilment and a larger sense of purpose."

She said, "The family to which I first pledged my fidelity was in the confines of a home. Today my loyalty embraces a wider family - India, my country, whose people have so generously welcomed me to become one of them."

Gandhi, in fact, said she joined active politics to defeat the forces threatening the essence of India, though she did not name the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

"Democracy was making India much more egalitarian, but it was also giving new power to some old forces - forces that sought to polarize and mobilize communities along religious lines. They threatened the very essence of India, the diversity of faiths and cultures, languages and ways of life that have sprung from its soil and taken root in it." Gandhi said after recounting how she, an Italian, became a member of late prime minister Indira Gandhi's family.

"The Congress Party was being buffeted by these currents... It now found itself in the midst of uncertainty and turmoil. In 1996 it lost the national elections. Pressure began to build up from a large number of Congress workers across the country urging me to emerge from my seclusion and enter public life.

"Could I stand aside and watch as the forces of bigotry continued in their campaigns to spread division and discord? Could I ignore my own commitment to the values and principles of the family I had married into, values and principles for which they lived and died? Could I betray that legacy and turn away from it? I knew my own limitations, but I could no longer stand aside. Such were the circumstances under which the life of politics chose me."

She also answered those who criticise what they term the politics of dynasty.

"At times people refer to the Nehru-Gandhi 'dynasty'. What this word fails to signify is two crucial elements: one is the sovereignty of the people. Through the democratic process, they have repeatedly vested their expectations in one or another member, and equally on other occasions, they have chosen to withdraw their support.

"The other essential factor, one that lies at the heart of this relationship, is not the exercise of power but the affirmation of a sacred trust. It is this love and faith that imposes its own responsibility and obligations, that has inspired even a reluctant politician such as myself to enter the public domain."

Talking about her decision not to accept the post of prime minister after leading India's grand old party to victory in 2004 elections, Gandhi said: "I have often been asked why I turned it down. In trying to explain that choice to my colleagues in the party, I described it as dictated by my 'inner voice'."

First Published: Jun 10, 2007 18:00 IST