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“Sonia, Swadeshi and Videshi” by Kancha Illaiah

A debate has been started around Sonia Gandhi’s citizenship rights, Specifically, over whether, as a woman of Italian birth who married into an Indian family, she is entitled to all citizenship rights, including the right to contest elections, and, in the event of being elected to the Indian Parliament, whether she can hold a post like that of minister or Prime Minister. The BJP and its allies have raked this up as a political morality issue, as the Congress proposed her name for the position of Prime Minister. Even political parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Telegu Desam joined the issue along with the Sangh Parivar forces. Ever since Sonia Gandhi became the president of the Congress the Sangh Parivar has started a systematic campaign about her Christian background and also her videshi (foreign) origin. Their attacks on Indian Christians, in fact, started as part of this campaign. Their notion of swadeshi is equated with their notion of Hindutva. In the forthcoming parliamentary elections the BJP and its allies, it appears, will make the foreign birth of Sonia Gandhi a major campaign plank.

In the background of India’s experience as a colonized country such a plank may influence the urban upper caste middle classes. Even a section of educated Dalit-Bahujans may also get carried away with such propaganda. But such a campaign will destroy the very notion of natural justice and it will redefine the concept of citizenship in classical brahminical terms. In the classical brahminical understanding, a Shudra or a Chandala has no right of citizenship. As a corollary of this understanding, they do not have the right to rule a state except by defiance, which invites crushing by force. Only the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas had citizenship rights. This exclusive citizenship right granted to two upper caste communities, according to Ambedkar, was responsible for foreign domination and political control of India by foreigners at different intervals. Because of the exclusive citizenship rights held by the upper castes, these communities were always perceived by the productive masses, who won citizenship rights only during the colonial period, as more foreign than the White rulers themselves. Thus, even a person like Vajpayee, whose descendants never lived as part of the masses, does not automatically become ‘our man’ simply because he was born in India, and for the simple reason that Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy she does not automatically become ‘their woman’ so far as the masses are concerned. In fact, both Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi are alien to the vast

Dravidian masses of India. Even though their skin colours differ, both of them look foreign to the masses. Once a person becomes a citizen of a country, his/her birth should not become a point of propaganda. Particularly, the principle of democracy and the understanding of citizenship rights must deter political agencies from indulging in such propaganda. If the vote mobilization strategists of the BJP and its allies think that the Italian birth of Sonia Gandhi can legitimately be made a point of political propaganda, by the same logic Vajpayee’s birth in a Brahmin family can and should become a similar point. Because in terms of the day-to-day life of the SC, ST and OBC masses, Vajpayee’s community’s social life is more distant even today than that of the community into which Sonia Gandhi was born and brought up.

The Whites touch all castes and taste all foods unlike the upper castes even today. It is a different thing if Sonia Gandhi is seen as part of the Nehru- Indira Gandhi family, whose basic social roots are not different from that of Vajpayee: Kashmiri Brahmin. But in a major respect the Nehru-Indira Gandhi family became different from that of Vajpayee. It became a family of plural cultures because of the inter-religious marriages that took place over a period of time. It is a known fact that Feroze Gandhi, husband of Indira Gandhi, was a Parsi, Sonia Gandhi came from a Christian background, while Priyanka Gandhi is married to a Christian. Such a social transformation through family ties should be respected rather than attacked.

Should the nation treat such a transformation of families as criminal? Do Vajpayee’s election strategists want to arrest social fusion and construct everything into the mould of brahminical Hindutva?

The nation has not yet forgotten the fact that Indira Gandhi, while she was the Prime Minister of the nation, was not allowed to enter the Puri Jagannath temple as she was treated as a Parsi. At that time, if I am not wrong, Vajpayee was a member even if he was not a prominent leader in the party. Did he oppose such religious barbarity? Did he build a movement to reform his beloved Hindu religion?

This nation should have been proud of Indira Gandhi’s courage and conviction to have married a person from a community that upholds the dignity of labour. It is in this community that a woodcutter proudly calls himself/herself Lakdawala, a vegetable vendor Tarkariwala, a shoemaker a Mochiwala and all of them are equal in their religion. No Parsi temple closes its door to any human being.

Have Hinduism or the Hindutva party that Vajpayee leads with such pride today, ever tried to learn any social morality from that community?


The BJP and its cadre collected information about Sonia Gandhi’s background in the minutest detail. Do they dare to put such details about Vajpayee, Advani, and so on, before the nation? The slogan and the snide remarks that get passed about Sonia smack of the cultural degradation of the Hindu patriarchs. The religious bigotry of these forces puts the whole nation in a bad light in the international community. When Indira Gandhi faced the first elections in 1967 the Opposition and also the ‘Conservative Congress’ leaders attacked her sexuality, widowhood, her relationship with her husband, and so on. The Indian masses did not care. Many so-called veterans that attacked her did not even get back their deposits. One gets the feeling that by talking more and more about the personal background of Sonia Gandhi the Hindu patriarchs are going to dig their own grave. These political parties should know that if they talk more and more about Sonia Gandhi’s videshi-ness she will bring in the sacrifices of the Nehru-Gandhi family and she will also rope in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by the RSS for purposes of election propaganda. After all as the granddaughter-in-law of Nehru, she can count many more martyrs among her near and dear ones than Vajpayee can think of doing. In fact he does not have any. The martyrdom of one vote in the parliament does not become equal to the heads of her mother-in-law and husband. Let us not forget the fact that the nation does not survive by counting who has more swadeshi martyrs in their cupboards. The so-called swadeshi-walas should remember that the Congress was started by A. O. Hume and once was headed by Annie Besant, and both of them were foreigners. The nation should not debate whether Sonia Gandhi is videshi or swadeshi, but rather ask: how swadeshi was Vajpayee’s government during the 13 months it effectively ruled the nation? What improvement did it bring about in the living standards of the rural and urban poor? What happened to land distribution? What happened to the Women’s Reservation Bill?

What are the prime ministerial candidates going to offer the nation in terms of their programmes? During the last 13 months several wrong trends have set into the system. Religious bigotry and brutal casteism have taken new forms to commit atrocities on the innocent masses. Insecurity among Christians is forcing them to withdraw from many social service sectors where they had been rendering vital services—schools, hospitals, old-age homes, destitute homes and so on. The Hindutva forces that attacked the agents of social service have not established any alternative service structures. The Dalits in many parts of the country have become easy targets. What remedies will the new government provide for all these maladies? The parties and the prime ministerial candidates should place their positive programmes before the nation which is going to enter the twenty-first century with the highest percentage of illiterates, unemployed youth, child labourers, HIV- positive patients, and so on.

-Kancha Ilaiah Deccan Chronicle, 9 May 1999

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