Foreign tag continues to plague Sonia

Ranjit Devraj

While the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi is now certain to be sworn in as India’s prime minister this week, her political opponents in the ousted and ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are determined not to let her forget her foreign origins. On Monday, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu announced that his party and its partners in the outgoing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would boycott the solemn ceremony, usually conducted at the grand presidential palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan.

That would mean that although Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the outgoing prime minister, would himself attend, almost half the members of the new 543-member Lok Sabha will stay away to protest the assumption by a ‘foreigner’ of India’s most powerful job. The hostility is such that for instance, top BJP leader Sushma Swaraj and her husband Kaushal have announced plans to resign from their seats in the Rajya Sabha so that they do not have to address Gandhi as ‘madam prime minister.’ Swaraj and those close to her have been trying to whip up sentiment against Gandhi around India’s struggle against centuries of foreign rule and independence in 1947.

In fact, the entire future political strategy of the BJP seems to be centred around Gandhi’s racial origins, although the issue failed to cut any ice with voters during the campaign for the April/May elections that ended last week. What mattered to the voters was the fact that Gandhi carried herself through the campaign with tremendous dignity, as befits the daughter-in-law of a family that has given the country three prime ministers. It also mattered that Gandhi constantly showed concern for ordinary people during her extensive road shows and election tours.

As she criss-crossed the country by road and air, Indians turned out to hear the ‘bahu’ speak to them of her plans to dispel poverty in surprisingly good Hindi and in a manner reminiscent of her late mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, who was regarded as a divine being by many Indians. The more the swaggering leaders of the BJP railed about her foreign origins, the more the people turned out to see her and her fresh-faced and sincere-sounding children Rahul and Priyanka.

According to Dilip Cherian, who runs the agency that managed her publicity, Gandhi seemed to strike a chord with women voters, many of whom are in fact outsiders in their husbands’ homes. At the press conferences she gave after elections were declared, Gandhi constantly referred to the grinding poverty, unemployment and the distress of farmers that she saw on her tours — impressions that were far removed form the ‘India Shining’ motto that the BJP leaders wanted voters to believe. She deftly deflected attempts by the BJP to convert the elections into a presidential-style contest of personalities by declaring that the leadership of the country would be decided by the voters rather than be imposed on them.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and that of her son and successor in office Rajiv in 1992 by Sri Lankan Tamil militants left the Congress party, whose fortunes have been intertwined with that of the Nehru-Gandhi family, nearly orphaned.

After spending seven years in mourning, Gandhi was persuaded by Congress bosses in 1999 to assume the job of party president and reinvigorate a party battered by the BJP and its Hindu fundamentalist politics. To the delight of her party colleagues and the dismay of her political opponents, Gandhi managed to turn the ailing party around finally — leading it to the spectacular victory in the just concluded elections. — IPS