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October 1, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

No way to treat a lady!

Am I the only person to be shocked by how much the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign is predicated on the issue of Sonia Gandhi's nationality? Leader after leader, at rally after rally, in speech after speech, makes just one point. Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy. Do we really want an Italian born person to be prime minister of this country?

It is not my case that Sonia's nationality is irrelevant. It is certainly unusual for a third world country to have as a potential prime ministerial candidate a European born politician. You may or may not accept Sonia's claims that she feels completely Indian. And you can ask entirely legitimate questions about why it took her so long to surrender her Italian passport and apply for Indian nationality. All of this is reasonable. Indeed, you could argue that the press has a duty to focus on such issues during an election campaign.

My concerns are slightly different. One: there are many other grounds on which you can attack Sonia. I find it intriguing the BJP has ignored these grounds and has focussed on the don't-let-a-white person-rule-India-again issue. Two: there is something faintly racist about the way her colour has become the basis of the BJP's campaign. And three: the statements made by the likes of Sushma Swaraj and George Fernandes seem to me to not just focus on her colour and birth, but also to demean all women.

The BJP never tires of telling us that it is no longer the obscurantist party of the rath yatra but is instead a modern, forward looking, liberal conglomeration. But you only have to look at the way in which it has conducted its campaign to recognise that you can take the candidates out of their knickers but you can't take the knickers out of the BJP's mindset.

There are foreign born politicians in most Western countries. In some, such as America, there is a law that prevents them from acceding to the highest political office. In most, however, there is no such law. But even in America, political discourse is never conducted in terms of colour or birth -- at least, not at any responsible level.

Take the instance of Henry Kissinger who was during the second half of the Richard Nixon administration, the second most powerful man in the United States. It was considered legitimate to attack him as a latter day Dr Strangelove or even to argue, as many conservatives did, that he was not sufficiently mindful of America's foreign policy interests. But it was not considered at all legitimate to go on about the fact that he was German born or that he spoke with a heavy German accent.

Contrast this with our campaign where every second BJP speaker makes jokes about Sonia's Italian birth or her Italian accent. Moreover, nobody questioned Kissinger's patriotism. You could have argued that as a Jew, he could not be counted on to be objective while mediating in a dispute between Arabs and Israelis. But at no responsible level was this criticism ever made.

I use an American example because Sonia's critics make much of the fact that no foreign-born person can become president of that country. But the proper parallel is with Britain -- given that our system is borrowed from theirs. There is nothing in British law that prevents any foreign born person from becoming prime minister and, in fact, to raise the issue of the foreign birth of such ministers as Keith Vaz would be regarded as unacceptably racist.

In India, not only is it not regarded as racist, it becomes the basis of the whole campaign.

More worrying is the distinction that the likes of Sushma Swaraj like to draw between a daughter and a daughter-in-law. The basis of Swaraj's campaign in Bellary was that she was the daughter of India while Sonia was, at best, a daughter-in-law. I find the mindset that makes these distinctions deeply disturbing. For several decades social reformers have sought to end the notion of the daughter-in-law as an outsider, valued only for her dowry and kicked around by her husband and her parents-in-law (more specifically, her mother-in-law).

It is not my case that Swaraj supports dowry or that she supports bride burning but the message that goes out when the most high profile electoral battle in the country is fought in terms of 'love the daughter, not the daughter-in-law' is one that every dowry hungry mother-in-law will understand. Without wishing to support a retrograde social trend, Swaraj has managed to embody the philosophy of every mother-in-law who ever hugged her daughter and pushed her daughter-in-law under the stove.

George Fernandes has explained that he only raised the subject of Sonia's motherhood because she herself has framed her appeal in terms of her membership of the Gandhi family. Even if one gives him the benefit of the doubt on that score, it is clear that BJP and other National Democratic Alliance candidates have not been able to think of such ingenious excuses for themselves. They have simply attacked Sonia on the grounds that she is a 'mere housewife', a woman who has achieved nothing other than to serve her husband and bear him children. You don't need to be a genius to recognise the sickness implicit in this mindset; such a position demeans all mothers and all women.

And then, there is the question of sexual innuendo. Pramod Mahajan has now apologised for mentioning Monica Lewinsky in the same breath as Sonia Gandhi but others have seen no need to make similar apologies. Worse still, the Congress, which is headed by a woman, has also behaved disgracefully. One expected far better of an educated and efficient chief minister like Digvijay Singh; yet his remarks on Uma Bharti are indefensible by any standards.

The truth is that in this country, women are fair game. Should they try and achieve anything of consequence you can always put them down by using sexual innuendo. And if that doesn't work, then you can do what the likes of Bhairon Singh Shekawat and Sunderlal Patwa have done and accuse them of being abhagan -- of being the sort of women who bring bad luck to good Hindu families.

The tragedy with all this is that the BJP is not short of issues with which to attack Sonia Gandhi. It is entirely legitimate to ask how a person who has never even been a member of Parliament -- let alone a minister -- can be taken seriously as a prime ministerial candidate. If Sonia does become prime minister in this Lok Sabha then it will probably be the first time in parliamentary history that a person has become an MP for the first time and prime minister on the same day.

But the BJP is not interested in Sonia's obvious lack of experience. Nor is it interested in the fact that her principal qualification for the job is her dynastic credentials. She herself has made no secret of the fact she only joined politics because she believed she had a duty to her family. You could argue, with a great deal of justification, that dynasties are more suited to monarchies than to a democratic system of government And you could ask the people of India to reject the Gandhi dynasty. In the past, the opposition has followed exactly this tack. But this time around, dynasty is not an issue -- a white skin and Italian accent appear to be more important.

I hold no brief for Sonia Gandhi. Like most people I believe that while she may be a nice person, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has proved to be a leader of stature. The issue here is not that Sonia is being unfairly attacked. The issue is that Indian politics has sunk to a level where politics is not about performance or ideas. Instead it is conducted in a cesspool of sexual innuendo, women bashing and plain and simple racism.

Regardless of which party you support and regardless of whether you think Sonia Gandhi deserves to win this election or not, no Indian who cares about the quality of our public life can be happy with the manner in which this campaign has been conducted.

We always said that we got the politicians we deserved. Even so I find it hard to believe that we deserve a campaign that is so lowdown and dirty.

Vir Sanghvi

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