Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta
Thank you Sonia
May 24, 2004
There are many Indians, particularly the non-resident variety, who are hyper-sensitive about what appears in the foreign media about their country. The feeling that the editors in London, New York and Paris are prejudiced and view India through tinted glasses is quite widespread. There are even elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why the patchy coverage of India is often at variance with our version of reality.
Let me admit my general impatience with this frenzy. Reading reports by Indian reporters of events in, say, the United Kingdom, a country where I have spent much too much time, I am struck by the sheer monotony of their preoccupation with fringe views.
Yet, there is a good reason for this blinkered perception. Apart from the Americans and the odd Australian, much of the London-based foreign media is detached from the British establishment. Normally, unless you were in school or college with them or share membership of one of the gentleman's clubs,a paid-up member of the British establishment is unlikely to be very forthcoming about what is actually going on.
This may be one of the reasons why I have preferred The Daily Telegraph to other newspapers from London. Neither tainted by the trendy multiculturalism of The Guardian or the globalism of the Financial Times,
Last week, as the Sonia Gandhi saga unfolded and reached its tearful climax, I was interested in how the rest of the world had reacted to this melodrama. Participating in a chat show for a BBC-run Asian radio station, I was struck by the underlying hostility that greeted my own disapproval of Sonia's claim for the top job. If Indians cannot accept Sonia because of her Italian origins, asked one lady, with what face can they insist that British voters should elect Asians or Blacks for top jobs? Is the BJP not guilty of racism? Indeed, over the past few days, the terms xenophobic, bigoted, racist, chauvinistic and narrow-minded have been used to describe Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti. What is worse, it is being said that the two personifications of Bharatiya womanhood went against a democratic mandate.
I can appreciate the concern of British Asians aspiring to bulldoze their way into the closed world of the British establishment. In time to come, the Sonia precedent is certain to be cited as a reason why the scales are invariably tilted in favour of ethnic Britons, at least when it comes to public life.
But let us not get bowled over by this expedient discovery of the spirit of cricket, Rabindranath Tagore's universalism and Marxist internationalism. There may be those who believe a Congress-led government must be led by the leader of the Congress. They say that Manmohan Singh is an upright and competent man but he lacks both popular legitimacy and authority, and will turn out to be another I K Gujral. Stability demanded that Sonia should have been prime minister.
That's a point of view many in the BJP share. They believe that their political recovery and the unity of the Parivar would have been greatly facilitated by Sonia's presence in Race Course Road. Her 'sacrifice' has not only put them on the backfoot but deprived them of a hateful symbol. Manmohan Singh, after all, does not inspire hate. "It would have been fun if Sonia was the PM," a BJP leader rued last week.
These are good arguments to sustain the view that Sonia's self-abnegation was a masterstroke that could pay the dynasty handsome electoral returns in future. We will certainly have to monitor the extent to which Sonia is able to insulate the Gandhi mystique from the inevitable tide of anti-incumbency.
I was indeed in two minds after the election results. Calculation demanded that opposition to Sonia be kept low-key and token. My emotions, on the other hand, were with those who went into frenzy at the very idea of a 'foreigner' at the top.
It was an article in The Daily Telegraph that resolved the conflict between head and heart. With a flippancy and glibness that comes naturally to a particular class of Englishmen, Tom Utley, one of the paper's regular columnists, revelled at the very idea of someone like him, lording it over a billion natives, even if it carried the risk of coming to a sticky end.
'I can see,' he wrote, 'that it would be nice to be able to boast, at a cocktail party or a school reunion, of having an impressive sounding job: "What are you up to these days, Smithers?" "I'm the sales manager of an engineering firm in the Midlands. What about you, Utley?" "Oh, I'm the prime minister of India, as a matter of fact." (Modest blush).'
Europeans have, by and large, taken the inability of Sonia to become prime minister rather badly. Some have been incensed enough to wish that the BJP and its leaders go into 'oblivion.' They have, of course, echoed India's chattering classes but their sense of loss has been greater than NDTV's. This generation of post-imperial Europeans have lost their only opportunity to enact the romance of Lawrence of Arabia and the Man who would be King, the valiant act of rescuing those Kipling called 'lesser breeds without the Law'.
I thank Sonia for sparing every Indian the patronising smiles and insufferable condescension towards the 'heathen heart that puts her trust' in the new maharani. I thank Sonia for not painting us as a nation of Gunga Dins.