Rediff Logo News Rediff Book Shop Find/Feedback/Site Index
June 3, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Sonia Gandhi is Indian by choice

An inescapable reality of Indian politics is that there are three kinds of political issues. The first -- and the only category that always counts -- are issues that become matters of concern to the electorate. Such issues are relatively few and far between but they do exist.

In 1977, much of the north Indian electorate decided that the Emergency was an abomination and voted against it. Similarly, in 1991, a large section of the cow belt electorate reckoned that Mandalisation was an important development and transformed electoral politics in their region forever.

A second category consists of issues that matter to the educated middle class. Politicians often dismiss these issues but the truth is that there are times when they do count. In 1977, the opposition to Indira Gandhi came first from the middle class and then reached the rest of the country. In 1988, the middle class decided that Bofors was an issue; by the following year, the entire country shared this view and voted against the Congress.

The problem with middle class issues, however, is that the educated elite is the most fickle constituency in the country. It adopts views with great passion and then, just as suddenly, drops them. In 1983, the middle class sneered at Rajiv Gandhi as a mere pilot who had no business trying to run the country. By 1984, the same Rajiv had been transformed into the hero of Camelot.

In 1988, he adopted a new avatar in middle class minds; a dodgy character who covered up for Bofors. And by 1991, just before he died, he was once again the new hope of the elite. So it was with V P Singh: a messiah in 1989 and an irresponsible casteist in 1990. And so it has been with A B Vajpayee: a great leader in early 1998; an elderly buffer who wasn't up to the job in the summer of the same year; and now, one of our best prime ministers ever.

A third kind of issue is the one raised by politicians to suit their own interests. Generally, it works like this. They first raise the issue, then sell it to the middle class and hope that, eventually, it strikes a chord with the electorate. Sometimes this works.

In the late eighties, L K Advani turned the caricature of the Hindu as second class citizen into a national issue by taking this route. But more often, it backfires. In 1996, P V Narasimha Rao tried to repackage himself as a crusader against corruption through hawala.

Initially, the middle class and the media bought the allegations. But the country rejected the ''crusade" and the biggest victim of the hawala operation became Rao himself who now goes from court to court seeking bail while his victim, Advani, is triumphantly ensconced as home minister.

All this is by way of lengthy preface to the controversy over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins. We cannot make sense of this debate unless we recognise that it is being simultaneously conducted at all three levels --- with varying degrees of success.

The first level is political. On this plane, it is no more than just another issue used by politicians to advance their interests. I would have some respect for Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma if they said: look lady, this is our country. You are a foreigner. Just because you happen to marry into the right family, it does not follow that you can lead the Congress. So get lost and let us run our own country.

But they haven't said that. The position they adopted in their letter to the Congress Working Committee was: thanks ma'am, for doing such a wonderful job in reviving the Congress. Please continue to be party president. Please campaign in the election but hey, once we've won, please go home and let one of us become prime minister.

In fairness to them, they can't say anything else. Both men actually invited Sonia to lead the Congress. They supported her accession to the job of chairperson of the parliamentary party.

They praised her campaigning skills and acknowledged her contribution to the Congress' election victories. (Sharad Pawar even told the women's press corps three weeks ago that Sonia was their candidate for prime minister -- but that's another story!) At that stage, it did not bother them at all that she had been born in Italy. In fact, when others raised the issue, they stoutly defended her.

Any fool can see what their motives are. Pawar has hoped to be prime minister since 1991. Sangma, an amiable, fun loving, good living chap till 1996, became a bit of a megalomaniac once he started appearing on television every day after he became Lok Sabha speaker.

Incredibly, he convinced himself he was prime ministerial material. Both men have seen their dreams fly out of the window. Their best hope lies outside the Congress. And what better way to leave than by raising a pseudo-patriotic issue?

The significance of the Pawar-Sangma revolt lies not in their tawdry self-interest. It lies in the fact they're tapping into a well of existing middle class discontent.

Though the Congress (with the notable exception of Sonia Gandhi herself) is reluctant to admit this, the truth is that many people have begun to say: isn't there something wrong with a country of 950 million if it can't find a leader from within?

Why does it have to persuade a housewife who had repeatedly said that she had no interest in politics to take over its oldest political party? Is it just because she has the right surname?

As of now, the question of Sonia's background assumes the most significance at the level of middle class concerns. There are two issues here. One: inexperience and dynasty. And two: the foreign birth. (Pawar and Sangma could not raise the first issue because they wanted her to continue as Congress president so they stuck to the second).

My own view is that it is the first issue that makes the most sense. No democrat can be thrilled by the idea of dynasty. There is something wrong with a political system that fails to throw up new leaders and falls back on dynasty time after time.

But why single out Sonia Gandhi? Every party has its own dynasty. The Bharatiya Janata Party has the Scindias; the second most powerful leader in the Samajwadi Party is Mulayam Singh Yadav's brother; H D Deve Gowda's son is a rising Karnataka politico; Farooq Abdullah's son is his successor; and so on. Even Pawar has alienated such former loyalists as Suresh Kalmadi because he wants to launch his nephew, Ajit Pawar, as his successor.

So, regrettable as the trend towards turning politics into a family business is, the issue is not Sonia-specific. There is a long history of people with no direct political experience being pushed into politics because of their surnames.

Farooq Abdullah was a middle-aged doctor in England till Sheikh Abdullah called him back. Ajit Singh was a successful computer engineer in the United States who had turned his back on Charan Singh's politics till he was summoned to be his successor. And even Rajiv Gandhi was determinedly apolitical till he was 40.

We accepted that these inexperienced and reluctant leaders had a right to join politics. Can we now deny Sonia that right? As long as people are willing to vote for dynasties, it is hard for democrats to take exception to this trend no matter how distasteful we may find it.

That leaves the foreign birth issue. I am always wary of people who try and decide who is an Indian and who is an outsider. Each time we try and move away from a legal definition of Indian nationality, we run into problems. Many in the Sangh Parivar would argue that Muslims are not truly Indian: they have extra-national loyalties. Sections of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad argued last year that Christians were certainly not Indian, they owed allegiance to the Vatican.

There are other problems. If you were to show a villager in Bihar a photograph of Sonia Gandhi wearing a sari and one of Sangma wearing a suit, chances are that he would pick Sonia as the Indian and Sangma as the Chinaman.

In fact, people from the North-East continually complain that they are not treated like Indians because they have Mongoloid features. Often, there are legal problems as well. Is a Sikkimese an Indian? According to Sangma's proposed amendment, no Sikkimese politician could become prime minister of Indian because Sikkim was an independent country when most of them were born.

The only way to cope with the diversity of India is not to define nationality too narrowly. Let anybody who has an Indian passport be regarded as an Indian. This is not a terribly unique approach. The United Kingdom, which is also a multiracial society, follows exactly this principle.

A little more than a fortnight ago, the East-African-born Goan, Keith Vaz, became a member of Tony Blair's ministry. Nobody said that he was a foreigner who shouldn't be allowed to join the cabinet. In theory, there is no legal obstacle to his becoming prime minister.

So it is with Lord Swaraj Paul, who is determinedly Punjabi but remains a member of the House of Lords and is a special envoy for the Blair government. He has often been offered ministerial office; perhaps he will accept it one of these days. Rest assured that if he does, nobody will say: pass an amendment to prevent Punjabis from becoming ministers in Britain. As our system is based on the British system, this is a suitable pattern for us to follow.

But there is a deeper issue here. A diverse country like India can only be held together by promoting oneness. The Sangh Parivar thrives on promoting difference: hate Muslims, hate Christians, hate any kind of difference.

For us to play that game would be to negate the essential nature of Indianness. Moreover, most of us are Indians by accidents of birth. None of us had any say in where we were born. Contrast this with Sonia Gandhi, who is Indian by choice.

She has turned her back on her own country, taught herself Hindi, adopted Indian dress, learnt about Indian culture and become an Indianbahu. Who is to say that this makes her less Indian than somebody who just happened to be born in India?

I do not dispute that Sonia's nationality is currently a middle class issue. But, as we have seen, the middle class changes its mind very quickly. I would be surprised if this issue lasted for very long. And in any case, I think the middle class is wrong to lay so much emphasis on birth, over which we have no control, at the expense of behaviour, which is a matter of choice.

That leaves the big question. Is Sonia's nationality a matter of concern to the electorate at large? You don't need to look too far for an answer -- Sangma and Pawar provide it in their letter to the Congress Working Committee. By asking Sonia to continue as Congress president and by accepting that it is her campaign skills that have revived the Congress, they have conceded that the vast majority of the people of India regard her as one of us.

Surely, in a democracy, that is all that really matters.

Vir Sanghvi

Tell us what you think of this column