From capturing headlines as a “Trojan Horse” in 1983 to being projected as India’s next prime ministerial candidate in 2004, Sonia Maino Gandhi has come a long way.
Two decades ago, she was called a “threat to national security” for living in late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s house “illegally”. Sonia married Gandhi’s elder son, Rajiv, in 1968 but became an Indian citizen only 15 years later.
Today, the 57-year-old Sonia can speak Hindi, India’s national language; she is at ease in a sari, the national dress; she is a confident president of the oldest and second largest political party, Indian National Congress (INC) and yet, she is under fire over her foreign identity.
The controversy over Sonia’s foreign origin has been triggered by the INC’s decision to project her as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2004 general elections.
A person who is not born in India should be barred from holding any government office in the interest of national security, say critics.
They disregard the fact that Sonia is an elected member of the Indian parliament or that she has received the green light from the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court of India.
“The court upheld Sonia’s Indian identity only on technical grounds but in the people’s court it is sentiments that decide issues. The Indian people will not accept her as prime minister; it is an issue of national pride for them,” says Vijay Goel, ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister in the prime minister’s office (PMO).
Sonia Gandhi has improved her
political and public standing
Sonia, he says, “should respect the sentiments of the people of India and not dream of becoming prime minister”.
Making the same point, National Congress Party (NCP) leader and former defence minister Sharad Pawar says, “A country of one billion people can find enough competent leaders within India; it does not need an imported leader.”
Pawar was thrown out of INC four years ago for making Sonia’s nationality an issue and his NCP is an ally in the Congress-led Maharashtra state government.
Even without being a foreigner, Sonia is not fit to be prime minister, says BJP spokesman Prakash Javadkar.
“Sonia cannot pull crowds; she does not know India and she has neither the experience nor the ability to lead the nation,” he adds.
"Those who raise questions about my Indianness should tell me which duty of an Indian woman I have not fulfilled. Which tradition or practice have I not honoured ever since I became Mrs Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law?"
President, Indian National Congress
Sonia, who maintained a discreet silence on the controversy over her foreign origin all these years, chose a public platform at a recent election rally in Jaipur, Rajasthan to answer her critics.
"Those who raise questions about my Indianness should tell me which duty of an Indian woman I have not fulfilled. Which tradition or practice have I not honoured ever since I became Mrs Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law?" she said.
"People who resort to dirty tricks, use money to grab power and incite violence for political gains cannot understand the grief I have known (because of the assassination of her mother in law and husband).
“When they cannot answer me politically, they stoop to indecency and get personal against me and my family,” she continued.
The ruling BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, however, maintained that “being a good daughter-in-law of the Nehru-Gandhi family is not qualification enough" to be the country’s prime minister.
“Has she done the country a favour by adopting Indian traditions? And let her answer why she took 14 years to acquire Indian citizenship.
“What is Sonia Gandhi’s contribution to public life? Has she participated in any political struggle? Has she done any political work?” he asked.
Her opponents also make fun of Sonia’s obvious inability to speak impromptu in any language, including English, which she studied at Cambridge as a diploma course student.
Apparently, because of her language inadequacy, Sonia has addressed the media just thrice in five years as Congress president. Moreover, as leader of the opposition in parliament, she has only read speeches, not delivered them, prompting her political opponents to dub her "a reader, not a leader”.
Congress representative Jaipal Reddy while conceding, “impromptu articulation is an important leadership quality,” argues that, “it is Sonia’s concern for measured speech that she chooses the well-prepared written word over the hasty spoken word.”
Jaipal Reddy, INC representative,
defends Sonia's oratory skills
Reddy points out that even Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “supposed to be a great orator”, has been reading his speeches, at formal as well as informal gatherings. “Does that disqualify him as prime minister?” he asks.
The fair way to judge Sonia, he says, would be to “go beyond the misinformation campaign and the silly cocktail circle talk against her”. According to him, “she possesses exceptional judgement and a keen sense of timing.”
Reddy dismisses the charge that Sonia is a stranger to Indian culture.
“Art and culture are her forte. Look at the distinguished Indian scholars, historians and artistes she is exposed to (as chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and that of Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art and Culture),” he says.
The Congress spokesman also refutes suggestions that Sonia is unfamiliar with the art and science of politics and, therefore, not qualified for the top job.
“For over three decades Sonia was exposed to politics at the highest level - as daughter-in-law of one and wife of another prime minister. She is at once a sufferer and beneficiary of the ups and downs of Indian politics and if not hands-on experience, she has unmatched exposure to politics, which is a great asset,” he said.
The BJP leaders, however, underline that administrative ability or lack of it is not an issue.
“The question is of national security. Even an inadvertent slip on Sonia’s part, because she is of foreign origin, can be misconstrued as intentional,” says BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi while advising Sonia not to aim for such a “sensitive position”.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP's
general secretary, stresses
The Congress says there is no cause for such concern.
“Sonia is pointed, bright, mature and knowledgeable, an ideal party leader,” says its spokesman. He also claims that Sonia is the party’s “unanimous” prime ministerial candidate.
“Don’t believe what the Congress leaders say publicly,” says Goel. “I have talked to many of them and they concede our objections to Sonia’s candidacy.”
Goel says that both Sonia and her party should understand the “national psyche” and that INC should withdraw her from the premiership race.
“The people of India want to know what our freedom struggle against British rule was worth if a foreign-born person is dreaming of ruling the country.”
Third Political Front
Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM leader Sitaram Yechuri disagrees with the view that Sonia’s foreign origin is an issue before the Indian electorate.
“The people of India want to know what our freedom struggle against British rule was worth it if a foreign-born person is dreaming of ruling the country”
Government minister, BJP party
“If it was, Congress would not be in power in 15 states,” he says.
Refusing to be drawn into a debate on whether Sonia is otherwise qualified to lead the world’s largest democracy, Yechuri says it is not fair for other political parties to “evaluate” the Congress leader.
Dismissing the debate over Sonia’s prime ministerial candidature as “presumptuous”, Yechuri says opposition leadership is not an issue at all.
“India is not a two-party democracy for the country or the national opposition to be worrying about who its prime minister would be.”
The post-election scenario in a country with six national and scores of regional parties, he argues, could throw up many possibilities.
With 45 seats, the CPM is the second largest opposition party in the Indian parliament (after the Congress, which has 112) and it would be a major partner in a third political front, expected to take shape in the near future.
The third front is bound to have its own prime ministerial candidate, a notable reason for the evasive stand of its members on Sonia’s candidature.
Until the alliance comes into being, however, the animated debate about Sonia as prime minister-in-waiting will continue and so will the bouquets and the brickbats coming her way.