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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt
May 17, 2004
The Case For Sonia Gandhi
A senior bureaucrat, who had served Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and is now retired, argued passionately against Sonia Gandhi's candidature for the prime minister's post. The following were the points he raised, which also sum up the objections of those who are against a foreign-born head of government:
a. When India became independent, those who framed our Constitution felt that those Indians who had migrated to countries such as Mauritius, Fiji, etc during British rule and acquired the citizenship of the country of adoption should have the right and opportunity to aspire to the highest office if they chose to renounce their foreign citizenship, returned to India, and resumed their Indian citizenship. Hence, they did not put a bar on an Indian citizen of foreign origin aspiring to any office. They did not visualise the possibility that one day a foreigner who became an Indian citizen by virtue of marriage might benefit from this provision to become prime minister.
After this loophole surfaced, we should have tried to amend the Constitution. Unfortunately, our politicians did not do it and now they cannot do it because of the fact that since 1989 no political party by itself has had the requisite majority.
Does it mean we have to accept this as an unpleasant reality and live with it, instead of raising it and drawing public attention to it? No. The fact that something cannot be changed does not mean that one should not try to change it.
b. What is legal need not be correct and in the national interest. Till the First World War, women did not have the right to vote in many Western countries. Till the 1970s, women did not have the right to vote in many Swiss cantons. Many men and the political conservatives argued that this was the law and women should accept it. Liberals refused, saying what is legal need not be correct. They repeatedly challenged the Constitution till it was amended and they were given the right to vote.
c. The argument that in the recent election voters endorsed Sonia's right to become prime minister and rejected Jayalalitha and Narendra Modi who had opposed it is misleading. In an election to Parliament or a state assembly, many issues come up. Neither in India nor in any of the Western democracies is a vote interpreted as an endorsement of a candidate or party's stand on all the issues that figured during that election. The fact that Jayalalithaa's party was defeated in all constituencies in Tamil Nadu does not mean the people have rejected her case against a person of foreign origin becoming prime minister.
Moreover, the Congress and the BJP have won an almost equal number of seats and votes, the difference in favour of the Congress being very small. In other democracies, whenever a single issue assumes tremendous importance, a referendum is held to ascertain the people's views on that issue. In the Swiss cantons where women did not have the right to vote, male-dominated parties argued that since they were winning the elections to the assemblies their victory meant the voters agreed with them that women should not have the right to vote. Women did not accept this argument and demanded a referendum on this issue posing a single question to voters: Should women have the right to vote? When the question was posed in this direct manner without confusing it with other issues, the majority voted in favour of giving this right to women.
Similarly, in the UK the country's stand on the Europen Union constitution is a highly emotive issue. Tony Blair did not argue that since his party won an overwhelming majority in the last election, the people should be deemed to have supported his and his party's stand on this issue. He has called for a referendum where a single question on this subject will be posed to the voters and they will be asked to vote yes or no. Unfortunately, our Constitution does not provide for a referendum on such emotive issues.
d. There are many countries where persons of foreign origin can aspire to the highest office. Such persons fall in two categories. First, those who migrated from the country to another country, acquired citizenship there, then returned and re-assumed home citizenship, and won elections. Examples are the countries of Eastern Europe. During Communist rule, thousands of their citizens fled to the US, sought political asylum and acquired US citizenship. After Communism collapsed, they renounced US citizenship, returned to their homelands, re-acquired citizenship and contested and won elections. Some of them became presidents and prime ministers. The people accepted them as their own flesh and blood.
Second, foreigners who settle down in another country and acquire its citizenship. Take Hope Cook who married the Chogyal of Sikkim, acquired local citizenship, and got recognised as its queen of Sikkim.
Indira Gandhi apparently suspected Hope Cook of being a CIA agent and asked Indian intelligence to keep her under surveillance. Ultimately, a public uprising brought down the Chogyal and Hope Cook fled Sikkim.
e. Whenever a foreigner settles down in another country and applies for local citizenship, he or she is subjected to elaborate enquiries and background checks before citizenship is granted. Sonia Gandhi was not subjected to such detailed checks and enquiries because she was the daughter-in-law of the then prime minister.
f. Even if the law permits it, appointing a person of foreign origin as the prime minister is an insult to our national dignity and pride. The constitutions of dozens of countries in the world do not bar a local citizen of foreign origin from aspiring to the highest office. But in how many of them have citizens of foreign origin succeeded in becoming the prime minister or president? Two. Peru and Fiji. Are Indians proud to be in their company? Have we carefully examined their bitter experiences after choosing a local citizen of foreign origin as the president or prime minister?
g. We may regard Sonia as an Indian citizen. But the Italians and the rest of the Western world look upon her as Italian and not Indian and remember only that her blood is Italian. Six out of 10 foreign newspapers have headlined her election as "India's first Italian prime minister", not as "India's new prime minister". Is this the way we want the prime minister of our country to be perceived by the rest of the world?
h. As prime minister, she will take decisions involving this country's destiny, war and peace, and will have her finger on the nuclear button. Would we be comfortable if these awesome powers are exercised by a person of foreign origin?
i. Army men and intelligence sleuths are taught the hard way to imbibe in their work culture the intense notion of national pride. Sonia Gandhi's Italian origin will come in their way while saluting her. Do you think the army chief will not hesitate even once while sharing his views with her on national security or the European Union?
j. We know little about her. But those who know her well claim that she is imperious in her behaviour and insecure by nature. Also, she is completely dependent on a durbari culture. Even her supporters agree that she doesn't have her own view on any important matter.
k. Rajiv Gandhi, an Indian by blood, came to office with tremendous popularity and a popular image as Mr Clean. He left office in 1989 discredited because of various scandals, Bofors being the most important. Rajiv himself was not a corrupt man, but he got the image of being corrupt because of his Italian marriage and the influence exercised on the decision-making apparatus in India by his wife's relatives. If the Italians could exercise such influence when the prime minister was hundred per cent Indian, what guarantee is there that they will not exercise similar or greater influence when the prime minister is of Italian origin?