20 May 2004

A World of Difference

Can you spot the world of difference?

The woman on the left is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the 57-year-old incumbent and hopeful incoming President of our country. The woman on the right is Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the 57-year-old widow of former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi, and would have been India's next leader following her surprise general election success.

Almost 2 years ago, Gloria announced she was no longer running for President. In the morning of December 30, 2002 (Rizal Day) while vacationing in Baguio City, she made her speech of withdrawal saying, "If I were to run, it would require a major political effort on my part but since I am one of the principal figures in the divisive national events in the last two or three years our political efforts would result in a never-ending divisiveness. My reading of the political winds tells me that the 2004 elections may well go down in history as among our most bitterly contested elections ever." [Reuters report]. With her decision not to run, Arroyo said she felt "relieved of the burden of politics."

Then on October 2003, Gloria declared that her decision not to run was a mistake. "I got out of the race, but what did I get?" she said. Restive members of the military led a mini-coup attempt (Oakwood mutiny) against her in July 2003, and husband Jose Pidal was embroiled in a financial scandal. So, she jumped back into the presidential derby again, this time saying: "I will offer myself as the leader with the experience and vision."

Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, stunned the Indian nation this Tuesday by declining the prime minister's post even though she led her party to a surprising victory over now ousted PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance. She said she will just remain head of India's Congress party but rejected repeated fresh appeals to be India's prime minister. She instead endorsed Dr. Manmohan Singh, 71, the architect of India's economic reforms and a respected consensus builder.

In a prepared statement, Sonia said: "I am not going anywhere. I am still very much in politics. I will continue as Congress president and chairperson (of the) Congress party in parliament for as long as you want me to. But I appeal to you to understand the depth of my sentiment when I say I cannot reverse my decision not to be prime minister. We must get on with the serious business of undoing the damage done by the last government and of working to create the India of our dreams.." [ChannelNewsAsia Report]

Gloria Arroyo, who you always see dressed in chic trouser-suits, has a reputation as an intelligent and hard-working technocrat who is also a deft player in the dirty game of Philippine politics. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, had led a life of near recluse for six years but for her appearances at a few official functions. Rajiv Gandhi, her husband, was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber during a visit to Madras in 1991. Sonia has always resisted Congress attempts to persuade her to step into Rajiv's shoes and eschewed politics for several years. Sonia is also well known for having asked an Indian court to grant clemency to a woman who had played a part in the bomb attack which killed her husband.

Two women leaders of developing countries both coming from a family of national leaders. They are of the same age but they have different sensibilities and levels of insight. One uses sacrifice as a ploy and a political manuever while the other one sees sacrifice for its true meaning, which is a means to "create the country (India) of their dreams."

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