Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 11, May. 22 - June 04, 1999
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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COLUMN

On being foreign and being nationalist

The focus on the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi as an electoral plank is misplaced, for it distracts from the main question of dynastic rule.


SINCE the campaign for the coming general elections has effectively begun (despite the fact that the election dates are yet to be announced), those issues which politicians feel are likely to be the most important for the electorate are already prominent in the political debate. Going by the current count, one of the most "significant" of such issues seems to be that of the foreign origins of the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.

In fact, this has been raked up not only by representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is quite predictable, but even by those of the Samajwadi Party and politicians belonging to other parties. And indeed the Congress party itself has risen to the bait, spending much press conference time in reacting to these accusations and stressing the current Indianness of its president.

It is remarkable how this entire discussion has missed the point about what is desirable in a prime ministerial candidate for this country. It is also remarkable because it stresses the personality and origins of particular individuals, independent of socio-economic agenda or political motivation.

Those on either side of this debate who are currently devoting so much time, energy and resources to it must have a rather poor perception of the political consciousness of the Indian electorate. And this despite recent and continuing evidence that we now have not just the largest but possibly one of the most sophisticated group of voters in the world.

LET us consider the issue of "foreignness" first. This country is no stranger to the involvement of "non-nationals" in domestic politics. Modern Indian history is replete with stories of the committed and crucial contributions of some remarkable people of foreign birth who became closely tied up with the struggle for national independence.

Indeed, the very progenitor of the Congress party, the Indian National Union, was founded in 1854 by two British men, Allan Octavian Hume and Henry Cotton. When this body assumed the name of Indian National Congress in 1885 at a conference in Calcutta under the presidency of W. C. Bonerjee, it was attended by 72 delegates of both Indian and foreign extraction.

In the century and more since then, the Congress has had five presidents of foreign origin, of whom Sonia Gandhi is only the latest. Some of them, such as Sir William Wedderburn, served more than one term. Others, such as Annie Besant, remain household names across the country, still remembered for their signal contribution to the national movement and to social and economic change in the country.

No one in India ever doubted, or even today questions, the commitment and dedication of these and many other "foreigners" to the Indian nationalist cause. So the mere fact of foreign origin per se obviously cannot be seen as the basic, or even major, impediment to substantial involvement in Indian politics or ability to become an elected leader of the country.

A further point needs to be noted here. Those who are dismayed or even alarmed at the idea of a "foreigner" becoming the Prime Minister, especially those within the middle class, are quite often those who are themselves seeking foreigner status either for themselves or their near kin. Quite often, those who are shouting the loudest in this matter turn out to be the same people who are desperate to get "Green Card" resident status for their children in the United States, or already have close kin as Non-Resident Indians.

It has frequently been observed that real citizenship is in the mind. And in that context there can be very little doubt that many of the constituents of this country's elite are Indian citizens only in name, with lifestyles, aspirations, affiliations and even identities that belong to the richer countries of the industrialised world. Yet such are the complexities of our world that many such people see no contradiction between this and opposing a politician because of his or her natal origin. It is interesting that the most enthusiastic proponents of the "Hindu bomb", for example, who also tend to be the most vociferous opponents of a foreign-born Prime Minister, are Non-Resident Indians who do not even deign to live in this country.

THIS being said, however, it should not be taken to mean that there are no arguments against the possible choice of Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister. There are in fact some persuasive arguments against such a choice, and it is intriguing that these have hardly been raised in the course of the present discussion.

The most obvious such argument relates to a basic issue that has been at the centre of opposition to Congress-style politics for at least three decades now, and that is the tendency towards dynastic rule. The real problem with the Congress today is not that it has chosen someone with another natal identity to be its president, but that it seems unable to find anyone outside of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to run its affairs for any reasonable length of time.

This is ultimately what defines the real bankruptcy of this party. And it is a bankruptcy that seems to be more stark and more desperate over time, because it requires less and less prior input from the members of the dynasty themselves. True, Sonia Gandhi has been handed over the control of the party on a platter, but that was true of her husband before her, and even of her mother-in-law to some extent.

But Indira Gandhi had substantial political exposure even before she took control of the Congress, and subsequently had to prove her mettle very quickly. Even Rajiv Gandhi had to devote some time to "helping mummy" before circumstances and fate intervened to make him Prime Minister. But his widow had no such public exposure before the first attempt by the party to make her his successor upon his assassination, and seemed to require no further qualification even eight years later.

ANU PUSHKARNA
Sonia Gandhi. Politicians are questioning her ability to become an elected leader of the country.

THIS less than minimalist requirement from the Congress towards its ruling dynasty has a number of unfortunate consequences, quite apart from the generally unpalatable nature of dynastic rule in itself. It means that membership of the "family" dominates all other considerations, which in turn means that the most effective or desirable candidates are not chosen even from within the party.

In the case of Sonia Gandhi, the implications are even more severe. For the first seven years of her widowhood, she distinguished herself chiefly by her sphinx-like capacity to keep everyone guessing. And even to date, hardly anything is known about her ideology, her views on important matters, her general capability in administrative matters, or, more generally, her capacity to govern a country. Like her husband before her, she took complete charge over a major national party without ever having had to fight a single election on her own account. And her charisma is widely believed, even by devoted Congress workers, to lie in her ability to evoke public memory in the name of her husband's family.

So advanced is the Congress party's tendency towards such dependence on this dynasty that its members now speak openly of bringing Priyanka Gandhi into the campaign to add to the supposed swaying of the electorate that the Gandhi name is said to achieve. And once again, the only qualification being sought is that she belong to the family.

This issue is major, but it certainly has nothing to do with foreign origins. Indeed, the problem would have been just as acute had the current Congress president been born in Allahabad, Chennai or Lakshadweep. That is why the focus on foreign origin is not only misplaced but distracts from the main question.

Despite all this if the Congress remains a force to reckon with in Indian politics, it reflects the paucity of a sufficiently persuasive and progressive national agenda, and evidence of the will to implement it, among the other parties. And this in turn reflects the relative failure of the political process in India's otherwise vibrant democracy, which is its inability as yet to move the real issues of the day onto the centre-stage of parliamentary politics.

THE main question, therefore, is not even about the real qualifications that various prime ministerial candidates bring to the job. Rather, it is about which policies they are likely to promote. In the past decade, the Indian electorate has demonstrated over and over again its general unhappiness with the policies being pursued by the succession of governments in the country, by voting them out whenever they are given the chance.

Currently, besides Sonia the other buzzword is "stability", which at one level simply expresses the elite's desire that the electorate be kept out of such serious matters as "liberalisation", and the making of money. It is not just an accident that every government from V.P. Singh's to Vajpayee's promised the electorate that it would reverse the liberalisation policies of its predecessor, and proceeded to do just the opposite. The ensuing instability is comfortably put down to caste and region. However, unlike these, but like the idea of "liberalisation", the instability of the Indian political system is only a decade old.

The people of India do care about the real effects of economic and political strategy. They know that there is a real subterranean tension in the kow-towing to foreign capital and "globalisation", which pits the masses who lose against the few who get rich. The former clutch repeatedly at the alternatives offered, while the latter seek to fool, divide and rule. The most recent BJP-led government too, despite its earlier protestations, effectively functioned as little more than the swadeshi dalals of large international capital.

Given that context, Sonia Gandhi, being not just foreign but also of the dynasty, stands a fair chance against those who swear by nationalism and swadeshi, flex the nuclear muscle built up by her family, but sell out the nation quicker than anyone else. While that may be the depressing choice in Indian politics today, the only saving grace in this forced choice between the swadeshi dalals and a videshi bahu is that this election too is unlikely to throw up a "stable" government. But how many more such elections will it take before truly progressive politicians are able to put the focus on the need for real change?


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