19 May, 2004
week, as America was marking the 50th anniversary of Brown (the landmark
racial desegregation decision by the US Supreme Court), India was enacting
its own version of Brown -- Browns Only! Where the Warren court of 1954
ruled that the constitution did not permit school segregation on the
basis of race, a combination of religious and political interests in
India managed to subvert election results by applying a distinction
based purely on race -- bypassing the constitution!
If you want to know
roughly what happened, here's an imaginary scenario. It's 1960. John
Kennedy has just won the Presidency. A movement is started around the
country by various powerful interests in the Republican Party, along
with strong support from the Baptist, Mormon, and other non-Catholic
churches. The message goes out that since John Kennedy is Catholic,
his allegiance is to the Catholic Church, and that he must be stopped.
Threats are issued, some veiled, others open, and there is talk of daily
agitations to bring the functioning of the new administration to a halt.
One might say -- wait a minute -- this is what we sorted out in the
elections. And Kennedy won! And the reply -- that doesn't matter, we
just cannot have a Roman Catholic as our President! Period. After a
few days of wrangling, Kennedy decides his presidency would create an
impasse, and abdicates, leaving Johnson to take the oath.
That's about the
size of what happened today in India.
Sonia Gandhi is an Italian-born woman, now an Indian citizen, who has
lived in India since the late 1960's. By an accident of history, she
is the head of India's oldest political party, the Congress. She led
her party to victory in the recent elections to India's parliament,
making Congress the single largest group in the new legislature. She
also retained her own seat by a comfortable margin.
Under the Indian
political system, the leader of the largest party in Parliament is invited
by the President (the Head of State), to form the next government. The
president must be satisfied that the leader has the support of a majority
of members of parliament. Sonia Gandhi demonstrated this. The majority
could choose whoever they wanted to be Prime Minister of India. They
chose her. So it was expected she would be sworn in as Prime Minister
of India later this week. A historic Indian election would have ended
with a smooth transfer of power.
It was not to be.
Just to be sure
we understand -- no one questioned that she won. No one questioned her
majority in parliament. So what exactly was the problem? Her race. Yes,
Elements of the
defeated coalition, including members of the ousted Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP), raised again the bogey of Sonia Gandhi being a 'foreigner'.
This ancient charge against Sonia Gandhi, repeated ad-nauseum these
last six years and intensified during the recent campaign, goes something
"She is not
qualified. She is a foreigner. She has no political experience. She
is a foreigner. National Security secrets would not be safe with her.
She is a foreigner. There were corruption charges against her husband
(an Indian, and a former prime minister). She is a foreigner..."
And on and on until
the clincher, almost straight out of Catch-22: "Even though she
is an Indian citizen, she is still a foreigner!"
them, her accusers are at variance with the Indian constitution -- according
to its provisions, any Indian citizen (with usual caveats of age, etc.)
can be elected Prime Minister. It is worth mentioning that the NDA,
BJP and other supernationalists of today made no effort to amend the
law during their six long years in power. Given all their professed
anxiety, one might expect them to be serious about such a vital matter.
But no. Some say they wanted Sonia Gandhi to be around, so they could
play the foreigner card at will, thereby ensuring a perpetual weak-spot
in the Congress armory!
To their chagrin,
their own strategy backfired -- Sonia Gandhi out-hustled them and won
the 2004 elections!
The Hindu right,
which the BJP represents, was soundly defeated in the polls (having
made claims to win 300 seats, its alliance managed barely 200). It now
saw her ascension to Prime Ministership as a ready opportunity to whip
up some fresh xenophobia, its time-tested way of resuscitating dwindling
fortunes. I saw the other day a ridiculous message from a well-known
Hindu guru, who views the installation of a Roman Catholic as Prime
Minister of India to be an affront to the entire edifice of Indian civilization!
Therefore, he argues, we must use every effort to stop Sonia Gandhi.
The Indian constitution does not discriminate on the basis of religion.
To this guru, of course, that means nothing -- his religion trumps the
constitution. And we think there are Ayatollahs only in Iran!
The disdain shown
to the electoral results by this unholy combination of political rejects,
religious charlatans, lay zealots and a segment of the foreign based
"NRI" elite (which has suddenly discovered a convenient and
safe outlet for its "patriotism") is quite striking. And yet
it is hardly novel. Xenophobia has long been a well-established life-form
in India. In his writings, the famous Mr. Nirad C. Chaudhuri noted racial
hatred as an important characteristic of the Indian mindset. But he
was writing of the early-to-mid 20th century. Five decades later, after
half-a-century of freedom, education, travel and residence abroad, its
grip seems as tight as ever.
Aside from the inherent
ugliness of flaunting one's nationality (many of these same accusers
strain every nerve to have their children settle in the West, and others
are proud to wave their American passport at every opportunity -- whereas
Sonia Gandhi and her children live in India), the key word in all this
is 'elected'. Sonia Gandhi has been elected. She is not a Paul Bremer
heading a government of occupation. She has been chosen according to
the procedures laid down by the Indian Constitution!
But no matter. Today
the outlaws have prevailed, the losers have won.
the threats of daily unrest in the streets, and the dangers to her own
safety (a not-entirely-irrelevant consideration for a person who lost
both her husband and her mother-in-law to political assassinations)
Sonia Gandhi made a dignified and sobering speech declining the post
of prime minister. It was never about power, she said (clearly casting
doubt upon her Indianness!).
When she was elected
a couple of days ago, the BJP and its chorus groups orchestrated a cry
of "Shame". Today it is the lovers of democratic India who
will feel humiliated, that the results of a free election could be so
easily subverted by an blatant appeal to racism. After today, India
can be likened to Fiji, where an elected government was dismissed and
replaced by another because the Prime Minister-elect was of Indian,
not Polynesian, descent. The sight of the world's largest democracy
resorting to a retrospective Bill of Attainder (and that too without
legislation and imposed wholly by threat) is an outrage. As nauseating
is the fact that the bigots' goal has been gained partly by the fear
Sonia Gandhi's children have for their mother's life, given all the
hateful propaganda that has been churned out.
When his government
was voted out, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a magnanimous
speech, saying that even though his party had lost, India had won. As
usual, these turned out to be empty words. Mr. Vajpayee knows that when
someone is kept from winning solely because of their race, the country
loses. But he has not spoken one word against this outrage. As during
mob mayhem in Gujarat, Mr. Vajpayee's fabled eloquence fell silent when
the moment came.
For the religious
buffoons who cried that the sky would fall if Sonia Gandhi became Prime
Minister, I would recall a news report from a few decades ago. An Indian
guru was touring Greece for a few days. The Greek Orthodox Church protested
his visit, claiming that this man was "corrupting our youth and
destroying our religion". The Greek government buckled under the
pressure and ordered him to leave. Before leaving, he had a message
for the Church, along these lines: "You have been here for 2000
years. You must have built a really great religion if it can be destroyed
by a man on a four-day visit".
India, which was
standing so proudly last week after the largest electoral exercise the
world had ever seen, was diminished immeasurably by today's events.
To paraphrase Mr.
Vajpayee himself, today Sonia Gandhi lost a post, but India lost a whole
lot more. It is a day of infamy.