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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Daughter of the soil

In 1999, three members of the Congress did the BJP’s work for it by raising the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s ‘foreign origins’.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
October 19, 2015 12:25:33 am
Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in a rally in Bihar Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in a rally

On this page, I recently narrated the story of how, after most unexpectedly winning the general election in 2004, Congress president Sonia Gandhi skilfully managed to be the fountainhead of power for a full decade simply by declining the office of prime minister and assigning it to Manmohan Singh (‘Circus of sycophancy’, September 5).

During the 1998 election, she had led the Congress’s election campaign but had firmly refused to be a candidate herself. However, this did not prevent her from getting herself elected unanimously as “chairperson” of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). As it happened, a fresh election became necessary only a year later, because of the sudden fall of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and Sonia’s inability to cobble an alternative to it. After the 1999 polls, however, she was not just the Lok Sabha member from Amethi but also the leader of the Opposition. Yet, almost the entire election campaign was dominated by the issue of her foreign origin. At times it seemed to have the power of a mini-nuke. This phase cannot be ignored.

Spearheading this campaign, the combination of the BJP and its allies stressed that Sonia had sought and secured Indian citizenship around the time her husband had become PM. Defence Minister George Fernandes declared that “her patriotism is in doubt”, and there might even be “some international conspiracy to plant an anti-national foreigner in Race Course Road”. Home Minister L.K. Advani proclaimed magisterially that India “could not be handed over to anyone of non-Indian origin”. Sushma Swaraj, a powerful orator among BJP leaders (as foreign minister today she is in a somewhat tight corner), announced that if Sonia became India’s PM she (Swaraj) “would get her hair shorn, sleep on the floor, eat only grams and wear only a while sari”. This was amusing but not offensive. For the rest, the tone and tenor of Sonia-bashers was low even by the then prevailing standards of discourse, which have since degenerated even further.

Of course, the BJP’s tirade did not go uncontested. Congress stalwarts did not confine themselves to the standard argument that Sonia became an Indian the day she married Indira Gandhi’s elder son. They compared her to Annie Besant, an Englishwoman and famous Theosophist, who had taken part in India’s freedom struggle and was elected Congress president in the 1910s. Unfortunately, some Sonia’s loyalists descended to the unacceptably low standards of their opponents. For instance, they demanded to know how Vajpayee, a life-long bachelor without any offspring, could have a son-in-law.

All this was dramatically overtaken, however, when the foreign origin issue exploded within the Congress as well. Three prominent leaders of the party, whose resentments against Sonia had been piling up, decided to do the BJP’s work for it. The driving force behind this sudden and surprising revolt was Sharad Pawar, a long-time aspirant to the office of prime minister. He hadn’t liked it when, after a nod from Sonia, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and not he, was made PM eight years earlier. He accused her of “usurping” his job when, without being an MP, she headed the CPP. In launching his attack on her, Pawar enlisted the support of two other Congress leaders of substance: P.A. Sangma, a Christian from the Northeast who had been a minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government and speaker of the Lok Sabha, and Tariq Anwar, a Muslim leader who was at one time in Sonia’s inner circle, but had later fallen from grace. It is no surprise that the Pawar-Sangma-Anwar combine was promptly nicknamed “Amar, Akbar, Anthony”, the title of a popular movie.

The threesome wrote Sonia a letter on May 16, 1999, telling her that as a person of foreign origin she must deny herself the office of PM, and quietly leaked its explosive contents. There was consternation within the Congress, jubilation in the BJP, and massive excitement in the country, especially the media. Within hours of the letter’s receipt, Sonia called a meeting of the Congress Working Committee and resigned the next day, declaring that she had “felt a lack of support” at the previous day’s meeting. She then withdrew into the privacy of her home and refused to elaborate on her statement. Members of Sonia’s coterie took over and staged an orgy of demonstrations to demonise the rebellious threesome and also flaunt their own unshakeable loyalty to “madam”. They swore that they would not leave the pavements around 10, Janpath until she withdrew her resignation.

On May 20, at a CWC meeting without Sonia, the “treacherous trio” was summarily expelled from the Congress, whereupon they formed the Nationalist Congress Party, with a single-point agenda to ensure that “raj karega Hindustani (only an Indian will rule)”. However, when the BJP was back in power at the Centre, in Maharashtra the state assembly was well and truly fragmented. To prevent the BJP from coming to power there, Pawar formed a coalition with the Congress. From 2004 to 2014, he happily served as agricultural minister in the Sonia-Manmohan government. Today, there are rumours that his party might replace the Shiv Sena in the BJP-led Maharashtra ministry. Pawar denies this. But who knows. In politics, Indian-style, anything can happen.

(The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator)

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