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What's wrong with Sonia?

May 18, 2004

Among columnists, I must be in a minority. For I am disappointed that Sonia Gandhi will not be our prime minister.

I am also quite old fashioned, I guess. And maybe that is the reason why I can't quite figure out why the BJP has difficulty digesting its loss in the Lok Sabha election.


Every time a BJP stalwart raises the issue of Sonia Gandhi's origin, I am reminded of the story my mother used to tell me as a kid about a fox and grapes and its apparent sourness. 


Graceful in defeat and modest in victory might be a mothballed adage, but one that Indian democracy has always adhered by.


But the Venkaiahs, Sushmas and Jaitleys have been anything but graceful. Instead of finding out why they lost despite the presence of so-called giants like Vajpayee, Advani and Joshi, they have been constantly sniping at Sonia and her children.


I have deliberately called the trioka 'so-called giants' for if they had been real India would have seen a different verdict altogether. Thankfully though Narendra Modi has stopped spouting his homespun gibberish that he packages as home truths.


I have three peeves with the way the second-rung of the BJP leadership has been conducting itself over the past few days. As an aside, does second-rung necessarily mean second-rate too? Yes, if one goes by the tactics employed so far.


Firstly, why should Sonia Gandhi's origin be such a big issue? When a Sushma Swaraj proclaims to the world that she will not call Sonia Gandhi 'Honourable Madam Prime Minister', and further still, shave off her head, don white clothes and sleep on the floor, she is exactly doing what an orthodox Brahmin will do to a Dalit. Swaraj, and the rest of party, is indulging in Neo-Brahminism. 


It is a surprise that Swaraj did not feel any queasiness in sharing Parliament with the likes of D P Yadav, Pappu Yadav and Mohammed Shahabuddin.


If at all the politics of exclusion has to be practiced, it is to be against such history sheeters.


By trying to exclude Sonia Gandhi from a seat of authority on the basis of origin, an emotive, ephemeral issue, they are effectively snatching the opportunity from the people of India to evaluate her on the basis of capability, performance, governance and development.


The real and concrete issues on which a democratic mandate should be based on, and one that the recent election quite unequivocally showed, India Shining campaign notwithstanding.


For the saffron brigade that constantly harps back to the Indian epics to prove a point, the exclusion of Sonia reminds one of Karna, of the Mahabharata fame, who was kept out of authority and power by the clique of Bhishma, Dronacharya and Arjuna.


Cribbing about foreign origin from a party that does not have any qualms about Indian workers reporting to foreign CEOs, foreign companies swallowing homegrown ones, college kids putting on an accent and catering to the American public is a wee bit too much. 


I know the first reaction to such an argument will be to throw in nationalism and call any possible assumption of power by Sonia as slavery. 


May I then ask the wise ones in the BJP as to why nationalism does not come into the picture when foreign companies come into India and destroy indigenous ways of life and industries? Or is it that the feeling of nationalism is directly proportional to the amount of dollars, pounds and yen that flows into the country? Shouldn't nationalism then also extend to our industries, our workers and our people?


'Our people' is the operative word. And that is where the roots of the current drama can be traced back to. When the BJP rakes up the origin issue, it is exactly doing what is embedded its political DNA. For a party that has been the master of 'exclusionist' politics, it is playing true to script. Power and the reality of coalition politics tempered it, for it had to keep up appearances. And the mask or mukhota came in handy.


Now that power has slipped out of its grasp and coalition partners aren't all that important, the mask is no longer needed.


Behind the politics of exclusion is the philosophy of 'us' and 'them'. (For those not interested reading boring tomes about politics of exclusion, listen to Pink Floyd's Us and Them) And the BJP has been reaping electoral benefits by taking advantage of social divides -- at times accentuating them, and often creating them.


Even a cursory look at Indian history will prove that our heritage is one of inclusion, coexistence and peace. And pray, why shouldn't Sonia Gandhi be accepted and included? She has paid more than her dues. She could have gone to Italy when her mother-in-law was assassinated. She could have gone anywhere, when her husband was killed. She chose to take up reins of a party that was moribund and on the verge of becoming redundant.


Why even L K Advani during his famous Bharat Uday Yatra was going to town about how worried he is about the drastic decline of the Congress party and its implications for the Indian democracy. Now that Sonia Gandhi has revived it, Advani and his chelas should be happy. Instead they are behaving like bullies whose lollipops have been snatched by someone stronger.


Sonia Gandhi was leader of the Opposition for more than five years. Why weren't any objections raised then? Why didn't the BJP and its allies bring in a law debarring foreigners from holding high office when they were enjoying power? Why raise a ruckus now that they have been given a black eye by the people?


The answer, quite sadly, lies in the inherently undemocratic nature of the party. Any party that claims that faith can override the law of the land, keep quiet when its radical cousins justify the demolition of the Babri mosque, have a chief minister who was fiddling his thumbs when Gujarat was burning cannot quite comprehend the beauty and inherent fairness of democracy.


Secondly, isn't BJP the same party that went all over the place extolling Persons of Indian Origin and Non Resident Indians? If we Indians can accept and take pride in a Bobby Jindal doing well in the hurly-burly of American politics, the same leeway should also be allowed in India.  I know the one argument that will be thrown at me is the US law that doesn't allow Indian or other foreigners to become presidents. I, for one, believe that it is only a matter of time before that anomaly is rectified. And I base my belief on the expanding power of the Indian-American community.


But why just the US? Singapore has an Indian president. Fiji had an Indian prime minister. Malaysia has a politically active and a flourishing Indian community. These are just a few off the cuff examples. If one researches more, you will find numerous such examples. In an open and globalised world, national boundaries are bound to disappear. And for the BJP, which was instrumental in organising the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, raking up the foreign origin issue is sheer hypocrisy.


Thirdly, it has been an accepted principle of the prime ministerial form of government that the party or a group that manages to get a simple majority also acquires the right to choose its leader. If the National Democratic Alliance can choose Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Congress and its allies also have the same rights to choose Sonia Gandhi. Three hundred and twenty five MPs had given their consent to Sonia becoming the prime minister. Roughly translated, it means that more than half of India has no problems in Sonia bagging the top job. MPs, after all additions and subtractions, are representatives of the people.


Sonia Gandhi will not take on the mantle of the prime minister. That apart, the fact remains that origin cannot be a factor in disqualifying a person from holding any position, whether of a clerk or of a prime minister. And that is something that will eventually be understood by those who believe in the principle of the free markets.


Good performance, great bottomlines, overflowing coffers and happy people should be points of reference.


R Swaminathan is Senior Assistant Editor,

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