India turns to young Gandhi and the women in pink

India’s grand political family, the Gandhis, hope to revive their electoral fortunes with a new generation and a link-up with a gang of female vigilantes in pink saris.

It's an unlikely alliance: the Harvard and Cambridge-educated scion of a ruling family and a woman who leads a gang of poor and illiterate vigilantes armed with wooden lathis and axes. But together, Rahul Gandhi and Sampat Pal and her band of women in pink saris are hoping to revive the ailing fortunes of the most powerful political party in India, the world's largest democracy.

For most of its short history as an independent nation, India's rulers have been drawn from one family – not because they are inheriting a throne or a crown, but because the Indian voters seem to like electing the descendants of Jawahalal Nehru, India's first prime minister after the end of British rule in 1947.

The latest Gandhi to enter the political fray is Rahul, the fourth generation of the family to aspire to the highest office in the land. He's the son of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his widow Sonia, now the political matriarch thought to be pulling the strings of the powerful Congress Party, but unacceptable to the electorate herself because she is Italian-born. Instead of standing in the last general election, Sonia backed the current ageing Prime Minister Singh, and she is accused of being the power behind the throne during his period in office, which has been marked by corruption scandals.

One international reporter on the Indian scene says Rahul's promotion as the party's frontman is inevitable: 'As always happens within the Congress Party at times of uncertainty and anxiety, there is a rush to find an eligible member of the Gandhi family.'

But Congress has a serious image problem – it is seen as arrogant and out-of-touch. Only yesterday in what was interpreted as a public relations gaffe, Rahul turned away a representative of the popular anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare who had come to New Delhi for a meeting.

Now Sonia and Rahul have persuaded the low-born heroine of oppressed women, Sampat Pal, charismatic leader of a gang of pink-clad vigilante women, to stand for election on a Congress ticket in state elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Greener grassroots

Forging alliances with grassroots popular protest movements could be a smart move. India is a vast country where local and regional issues can dominate even in general elections. And Sampat Pal and her Pink Gang have certainly captured the popular imagination with their combination of direct action and campaigns for social justice and better education for women.

But there are risks: should established politicians ride on the coat-tails of unpredictable campaigners who have their own agenda? Or is this local heroine risking her independent point of view by agreeing to the relationship with the establishment?

You Decide

  1. Do you think a political culture dominated by dynasties is healthy or unhealthy?
  2. Should a society's dispossessed take matters into their own hands, or is party politics a better way to change things?

Activities

  1. Research some of the powerful political families around the world: think of the Kennedys and the Bush family in America, Pakistan's Bhuttos or Thailand's Shinawatras. Make a family tree and/or write some short biographies.
  2. What are the problems facing women in India today? Describe a Pink Gang campaign.

Some People Say...

“All political dynasties end in failure.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So who is this Sampat Pal?
Born into a village of dalits, or untouchables, she was married off at 12 and is a mother of five. But she refuses a 'submissive' role for women, and leads the Gulabi Gang, known as the Pink Gang because of the bright saris worn by its members.
Pink doesn't sound threatening.
No, but the lathis, or long wooden sticks, with which the gang confronts abusive husbands and corrupt officials are! Sampat Pal started the gang eleven years ago with five sisters-in-law, and it is now a large and famous movement. Traditionally they have shunned party politics.

Word Watch

Scion
Someone descended from an important family – the word originally means a young shoot coming from a plant.
Vigilantes
People working individually, or as a group, to enforce laws independently from the official establishment.
Congress Party
The single largest political party in India, the Indian National Congress played a major role in Indian independence, and ruling the country after 1947. Traditionally the party is seen as relatively left-wing, though it has moved closer to the political centre in recent years.

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