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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt

May 17, 2004

Contributing Editor Sheela Bhatt listens to arguments for and against Sonia Gandhi becoming India's first foreign-born prime minister

As a surprised India watches Atal Bihari Vajpayee walk away into likely retirement, the debate over his likely successor Sonia Gandhi has intensified. While those opposing India's first foreign-born prime minister have been loudly stating their views, the Congress president does have her supporters too. What follows are some of the arguments heard in New Delhi over the last three days in her favour:

a. Sonia Gandhi is a naturalised citizen of India and the Supreme Court has validated her status. The Congress party's moves and her own politics are well within the limits of the Indian Constitution. As such no party or individual can stop her as the elected parliamentarians of her party have accepted her as their leader.

b. It goes against the basic tenets of Hinduism to oppose her just because she was born in Italy. Since centuries Hindus believe in Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, or 'the world is one family.' Sonia says she is Indian and believes in Indian culture. There is no reason not to accept her claim because there is nothing on hand, so far, to prove her wrong.

c. Even her critics acknowledge that she has shown her mettle as an 'oonche ghar ki bahu' befitting the high standards set by the tradition called the Hindu Undivided Family.

d. The definition of national pride has evolved since the days of the Mahabharat. There is a need to take a sublime rather than a supercilious view of Hindutva. Times have changed and so have global realities. If you oppose her candidature, none of the non-resident Indians and people of Indian origin living outside India will be able to demand equal rights in their countries of residence.

e. Her elevation to the highest office will raise India's stock in the international arena. India will be seen as a liberal, tolerant, secular and progressive culture. India will stand tall in the free world.

f. How can one explain the support and acceptance of Sonia Gandhi by 542 Indian parliamentarians since the last six years when she was leader of the Opposition? Was that considered anti-national by the BJP? No. During her tenure as leader of the Opposition, did she do anything that shamed Indian democracy? No. So what is the great need to discuss her origin now?

g. All the political personalities who opposed her and exclusively targeted her in Election 2004 have been humbled by the people of India. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa did not raise any other issue but that of Sonia's foreign origin. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's sole target was Sonia Gandhi. His attacks on her lacked dignity and decency. Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy has been deriding her for many years. All three have been humbled by voters. The Congress won against Modi and Jayalalithaa. Swamy lost in Madurai. Believers of democracy have no option but to respect the verdict of the voters who have unambiguously rejected the anti-Sonia brigade.

h. Base instincts of fear, jealousy, intolerance, and parochialism are coming to the fore in the case of some anti-Congress leaders who are opposing her. She has achieved something most political leaders of the country could not even dream of till the morning of May 13. Most people kept focusing on her weaknesses and overlooked her strengths. Her staunch opponents have been caught unawares.

Those handful of Congressmen who were behind the making of Sonia Gandhi proved smarter than the Sanghis. Some of the anti-Sonia leaders' frustration is also against the system, which she has used to her advantage. Even in 1999, when her foreign origin was first raised, why did these so-called nationalists not comprehend fully the implications of the country's legal/political system that allows any foreign-born Indian citizen to become prime minister?

Equally important is the fact that any Indian who is elected by his/her party's elected representatives as their leader in the Lok Sabha can become prime minister. Laws are as simple as that! Why blame her now? Blame the lack of judgment of Sonia's opponents and their inability to take a long-term view.

i. The 11-member National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, headed by Justice M N Venkatachalliah, also did not recommend any change in the Constitution in this regard. Then, the BJP played politics and its members didn't argue the case on the issue. They perhaps thought they would remain in power for long. They lost a golden chance.

j. The foreign origin issue will now occupy prime position in Indian politics. Sushma Swaraj has already taken the lead. But this lobby will have to take into account the fact that in the villages of India Sonia Gandhi's image is that of a victim. If she plays her cards well, any agitation against her will be seen as victimisation of a victim. The Sushma Swaraj type of leaders do have their own standing, but they are not seen as pro-poor. Sonia Gandhi enjoys that halo for the time being.

k. Believe it or not, many Congressmen think the BJP and the Sangh Parivar oppose her not because she is foreign-born. They oppose her because she is becoming prime minister to buy time for her son Rahul Gandhi. Congressmen think that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are the only hurdles in the BJP's pursuit of power. In Election 2004, Sonia singlehandedly robbed the BJP of power. The BJP is not worried about the Congress or Congressmen, but they do fear Sonia Gandhi's emotional appeal and brave nature. Congressmen need Sonia more than ever now.

l. In Fiji, England, Guyana, and in many other countries persons of foreign origin can occupy high posts. Even in the US, a movement is starting to take shape to amend the constitution to allow naturalised Americans to aspire for the presidency.

m. Of course, Sonia Gandhi is not considered an outstanding leader, thinker or visionary. But look around in New Delhi and in the state capitals and you will find tremendous power concentrated in the hands of unbearably corrupt, inexcusably inept, illiterate and feudal politicians. Sonia Gandhi is untested yet. She deserves a chance.

n. It is incorrect to argue that the ordinary people of India did not know she could become prime minister. Congress spokesmen always said the issue of leadership would be decided after the election. They never said Sonia Gandhi is not in the race. Our laws do not require the direct mandate of the people to elect the prime minister. It is a prerogative of the elected representatives. And they have duly exercised their right.

o. The RSS-sponsored agitation against Sonia Gandhi will make her stronger than she is today. Power always makes a leader more attractive. Congressmen know she will have access to files and only her signature will matter. There are chances of the anti-Sonia agitation fizzling out because it's a little late in some respects and a little ahead of its time in others.

p. For the sake of argument, Sonia Gandhi's supporters can also claim that the Dravidians and the tribals are the only true Indians. All others are hybrids. In fact, till recently some upper-caste communities in the Hindi belt were even proud of their Greek lineage.

q. Three years ago, former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao had told a journalist that 'nobody can stop Sonia Gandhi from becoming prime minister except elected Congressmen.' He was so right.

Next: The Case Against Sonia Gandhi

Image: Uday Kuckian

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