Date: 2/25/2002


..............The 1999 Elections: A Preview

...........Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Patriotism and India

In recent weeks, with Mr Pawar's ouster from the Congress, the issue of Mrs Sonia Gandhi's eligibility to become India's Prime Minister has drawn considerable attention. Several commentators have pointed out how an Indian born Italian citizen was barred from contesting local elections in Italy, but here in India, we have this rather bizarre scenario of an Italian born Indian being projected as the nation's Prime Ministerial candidate even before that individual had ever contested, let alone won any public office. That Italy is not alone in following such restrictive practices has also been established. But Mrs Gandhi's credentials to become India's Prime Minister can be challenged on several other grounds.

That Mrs Gandhi was born Italian is perhaps not quite as important as what it means to be Italian in India. Italy is a former colonial power and a member of NATO. It has the ignominious history of occupying African nations like Libya and Somalia, brutalizing their local populations, and robbing and plundering their resources. And not once has the post-war Italian government offered to make reparations for the damages that it inflicted upon their African colonies. Although, one might argue that compared to Britain, Italy was a relatively minor colonial power, it's voluntary participation in the Gulf War, and it's present participation in the barbaric bombing of Yugoslavia exposes the criminal character of the Italian state. That it is allied with Britain who ravaged and plundered India for two centuries only makes things worse.

Under these circumstances, the Indian public would be foolish not to be skeptical about her national origin, and could very rightly demand that the burden of proving her loyalty to India rests entirely upon Mrs Gandhi. For some Indians, it is sufficient that Mr Rajiv Gandhi married her. In some other countries, that alone would have prevented Mr Rajiv Gandhi from aspiring to the nation's highest public office, since he would then have been considered a possible national security risk. Were India not a democracy, but subject to the will of an all-powerful nobility, marriage may indeed be a sufficient condition for succession to power. Although, there too, a smooth succession would be no guarantee, since other relatives could stake their claim on the basis of being native-born and thus, having greater legitimacy to power.

But in a truly representative democracy, legitimacy cannot, and should not, be the basis of determining how power must be shared. For when a nation elects a Prime Minister, it temporarily bestows considerable political and economic power on the successful candidate. This power is not something inborn or bestowed by some super-natural entity but temporarily forfeited by the masses. More than the individual's family roots - it is the individual's expected actions that should determine who the nation entrusts with the power to lead. India's constitution is not a royalist constitution whereby it empowers select families or their descendants or relations by marriage, special or exclusive rights in that regard. The right to the powerful post of Prime Minister must be hard fought and hard earned. And every Indian should exercise the greatest wisdom and caution in deciding who is to be worthy of acquiring that power.

Mrs Gandhi as the "Nation's Bahu"?

That a majority of Congress people have made their decision solely on Mrs Gandhi's connections to the Nehru family is no reason why the rest of the country should mechanically follow suit. Sentimental appeals like she is "our Bahu" are not only symptoms of cheap psycho-babble but something far worse. By packaging Mrs Gandhi as the nation's "Bahu" - her backers are engaging in the worst kind of manipulation possible. First, they wrongly imply that the nation's interests are one with those of the Nehru family. That those who struggle to make ends meet, that those who struggle to put a roof over their heads, or those that walk miles just to collect drinking water could have anything in common with the high-flying spoiled and pampered off springs of the Nehru family. And that Mrs Gandhi's experiences as a "Bahu" are even remotely similiar to the millions of Indian housewives who must both work for a living and cook and clean for their husbands and children. Unlike millions of working men and women in India, Mrs Gandhi has neither worked for a living, nor worked as a house-wife in India. In that sense, Ms Rabri Devi is far more qualified to be the nation's "Bahu". But the mainstream Indian media - especially the English language media was most uncharitable and unkind to Ms Rabri Devi - yet has been remarkably kind to Mrs Gandhi. Ms Rabri Devi's halting speech, and her early lack of confidence were mocked and ridiculed. But Mrs Gandhi's own difficulties and discomfort with speaking in Hindi have been politely played down.

The "Bahu" imagery is manipulative in other ways as well. On the one hand, it implies that Mrs Gandhi can be trusted because she will be like a "dutiful bride", at the mercy of the family's patriarchs. But the real "dutiful brides" of India are being harassed and hounded out of office in local Panchayats. Which of the real Indian bahus could even dream of the post of Prime Minister? And of course, what these Congress operatives are not saying is that once elected, this particular "Bahu" will wield the sort of power that even most household patriarchs don't enjoy. That these scamsters in the Congress don't even realize that the "Bahu" metaphor is a highly casteist and communally charged metaphor speaks volumes of the Congress's new found commitment to 'secularism and anti-casteism'. That these Congress ideologues aren't ashamed to use symbols that pay homage to a patriarchal and feudal value system, that reinforce static and traditional equations of power says a lot about the kind of party that the Congress has become, and wishes to remain. Sycophancy and chicanery are often close cousins - and in the projection of Ms Gandhi as the "nation's Bahu", the party is exhibiting both in a thoroughly nauseating way.

But regardless of such emotional myth manufacturing, the real question before the nation should be: What will this "Bahu" do in power? Unfortunately, never before in the history of independent India has this question been more difficult to answer. Every former Prime Minister has had a public record that could be examined and scrutinized. One could like them, or hate them for their views. Once could commend them, or condemn them for their policies. But in Mrs Gandhi's case, there is so little to go upon. For many of us, Mrs Gandhi remains eerily enigmatic as a politician. In an authoritarian state, that would be hardly surprising, but in a vibrant democracy such as is India, where the frank and feisty Ms Mayavati competes with the blunt and outspoken Mr Mulayam Singh, this carefully planned distance from the public is both uncharacteristic and unprecedented for modern Indian politics.

There is however, a historic precedence for such behaviour.

During the period of colonial rule, the British overlords routinely refused to reveal their minds to the Indian press. They invariably communicated through prepared statements that were disseminated through their junior officers. As the masters of an enslaved nation, they felt no compunctions in treating the Indian press with disdain.

If the Congress imagines itself to be the master of an enslaved nation, it's leader's distance from the press is not inconsistent. But when one rules on behalf of the masses, when one rules in the popular interest, one doesn't fear their questions. This is not to say that politicians who have a way with the masses don't lie and manipulate. But at least, they put their statements on the record, and risk being thrown out for being false or deceitful. But when a politician is elected after saying very little, and promising very little, the masses simply surrender all rights. They even forfeit their right to be mad and furious at a subsequent date. Shrewd watchers of Indian politics may, therefore, correctly read into this reticence the possibility of something more insidious and sinister, but many Indians are as yet, willing to play along.

Such naive Indians may be tempted to give Mrs Gandhi the benefit of the doubt, or assume that the party's statements reflect her views - but it should be noted that few were willing to be as generous with Ms Rabri Devi. If Mr Lalloo Yadav deserved to be berated for hiding behind his wife's 'pallu', surely all Congress members deserve similiar censure? If Mrs Gandhi has no views of her own, and is simply an agent for back room wheelers and dealers in the Congress, then surely she too should be ridiculed for being a "Mukhota" as some branded Mr Vajpayee? Yet, Mr Vajpayee's public performance has been fairly consistent with his own stated views. But what are Mrs Gandhi's own stated views?

On Secularism

Some Indians have been been enamoured by Mrs Gandhi because she issued an apology for the Babri Masjid fiasco, and regretted the party's role in offending the sensibilities of India's Sikhs. But it is important to note the timing of her statement. She did not express any regrets or sympathies for the Sikh riot victims when they were isolated and alone in fighting their case for compensation and justice. She did so 14 years after the fact, when they had already won a measure of popular sympathy for their cause and won their case in court. She did so when the chief perpetrators of the violence in the Congress had lost their popular base and had become severe liabilities for the party.

Similiarly, she did not apologize for Babri Masjid when Mr Narasimha Rao was in power - when it would have taken guts and courage to go against the leadership of the party. She did not join the secular voices of conscience when Muslims were hacked to death in Bombay. She did not castigate the Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra for his ineptitude or possible collaboration with the Shiv Sena in terrorizing the city's poor Muslims. She apologized for Babri Masjid only when it became clear that the party was headed towards a catastrophic decline, and when it was clear that no one in the Congress would have to a price for their own role in the communal carnage that ensued after Babri Masjid.

It is also important to note what she didn't apologize for. She didn't apologize for Shah Bano. She didn't apologize to India's Muslim women who suffered a severe setback when the Congress pandered to the most reactionary and unpopular representatives of the Indian Muslim community. She did not apologize for aligning with the Muslim League in Kerala where muslims are not an oppressed minority but a sizable plurality, with a fair share of access to political and economic power in the state. A principled battle against communalism cannot be based on selectivism and the politics of opportunism and convenience.

But even more important, apologies without concrete plans of action that remedy or prevent past wrongs are mostly meaningless. On several occasions, anti-Muslim riots have taken place in Congress-ruled states. Even some of the recent anti-Christian incidents have taken place in Congress-ruled states like Orissa and Madhya Pardesh. The police have either collaborated with the perpetrators, or simply looked the other way. The have never played an active role in prevention, or punitive detention of the culprits, even when the culprits were easily identifiable. How is it that after so many years of standing by and watching these things occur, it has not occurred to Mrs Gandhi, as the leader of the Congress, and as an aspirant to the nation's highest office, that there may be a need to make the nation's police forces more accountable and responsible? India's police force has undergone few structural changes since the British colonial era, when the police's sole job was to torture and oppress the Indian masses. The police force was a highly corrupt and communalized force that no patriotic Indian could trust. In many ways, it remains just as untrustworthy today. Did the Congress make any sincere attempts to change things after 1947? After the Sikh riots? After the Bombay riots? After Orissa? Has Mrs Gandhi asked Congress Chief Ministers to make any changes in this regard? Would she do anything differently if she were Prime Minister?

If Mrs Gandhi were truly sincere about protecting India's secular constitution, one might think that this issue might occupy her mind even a little bit. Yet, Mrs Gandhi has had little more than pious statements on her side. But if pious and well-meaning statements are to be considered sufficient, why hasn't Mr Vajpayee earned the esteem of the secular brigade. After all, Mr Vajpayee made no communal sounding statements in his campaign speeches. He promised to preserve India's secular constitution, and he has repeatedly reaffirmed that since becoming Prime Minister. In fact, many of his speeches have been models of secular speech writing. Why the apparent distinction?

In fact, the secular battle was won in 1996 when both the Congress and the BJP were rejected at the polls, and a majority of Indians made it clear through their vote that they did not wish to see India's secular constitution tampered with. It was that realization that pushed the BJP towards it's path of pragmatic collaboration with India's regional parties - such as the TDP, the Trinamul Congress, the BJD, and the Samata Party - who are at least as "secular" as the Congress. To view the Congress's transformation as a dramatic ideological change but to continue to see Mr Vajpayee as a mere "Mukhota" does injustice to the intelligence of the Indian masses. The Indian masses, in their collective wisdom, correctly sensed that in the previous election, the dangers of a constitutional change were minimal, and they consequently desisted from evaluating parties solely on the basis of how secular they were.

Mrs Gandhi's secular credentials have been given a fillip by leaders of the CPM and the CPI. But contrary to their pompous claims, these leaders no longer represent the growing and radical aspirations of India's poor and downtrodden masses. More and more, India's poor are looking to other parties for leadership, especially the BSP in Northern India. It is only a matter of time when their base in West Bengal and Kerala shrinks as it has elsewhere in the country. Smaller left parties, like the RSP and the FB, sense the dangers of blindly tailing Mrs Gandhi, and in spite of considerable bullying, have refrained from falling into the trap of making the Congress and it's present leadership appear respectable.

On Economic Policy

One of the few areas where a little bit is known about Mrs Gandhi's views is in the realm of economic and fiscal policy. On these subjects, Mrs Gandhi has made her views clear. The policies of Mr Manmohan Singh will continue. And she has made no apologies for some of the devastating consequences of the economic policies pursued by previous Congress governments.

It was the Narasmiha Rao/Manmohan Singh team that initially floated the theory that the government could retreat from it's responsibility to provide education and drinking water to the masses, that the government could abdicate it's responsibility for the health care and housing needs of the masses, and that the private sector could compensate for the lack of public spending on infrastructure.

After leading an ideological assault on the process of public planning and enlightened state intervention, the negative results are all too visible. The percentage of Indians that live in slum clusters in India's cities has almost doubled (in spite of a growing GDP). Access to health care for the poor has reduced, not increased. There has been little improvement in school attendance amongst poor teenagers, and the school drop-out age for children in rural India is nowhere near what it should be. There has been little progress in the battle against child labour. Neither has there been much progress in provisioning drinking water and sewage facilities for the masses.

But even as the needs of the poor have been ignored, few in the middle class can honestly claim to be satisfied with the state of affairs in urban India. Power outages are more frequent, not less. City water supplies are more erratic, not less. And the condition of the nation's roads are appalling. And unlike some of the opposition parties who at least acknowledge these problems, Mrs Gandhi has given no indication that the Congress accepts even partial responsibility for this abysmal state of affairs.

And although the Congress has been rather smug and self congratulatory about it's role in bringing about delicensing, it was the Congress, that for years resisted the demands for internal liberalization. What is worse is the manner in which delicensing was conducted. Delicensing was only partial, and took place in an environment of reckless international liberalization. This meant that the greatest benefits of delicensing went - not to the Indian public, or even to Indian businesses - but to MNCs and foreign banks who once again own a significant and growing share of India's productive wealth. Something unseen since the colonial days.

Had delicensing, and the abolition of OCTROI and other such inter-state tarriffs taken place a decade before the lowering of external barriers, uncompetitive Indian monopolies would have been replaced with technologically advanced and financially sound Indian enterprises. Agile Indian entrepreneurs and businesses would have reaped the full and just rewards of delicensing. As things stand, it has been a decidedly mixed picture. Some Indian business have indeed benefited. But not as much as the MNCs and the old rotten monopoly houses who rushed into deals with multi-nationals to stave off domestic competition. And many Indians saw no benefits at all. With import duties often being lower than the combined domestic tariffs (coupled with international dumping), several small businesses have failed, or have been swallowed up in spite of being technologically at par, or ahead.

No one in the Congress has admitted to these errors, and Mrs Gandhi, instead of being circumspect on the issue, has promised to forge on ahead, unmoved by the possibility of further negative consequences for the country. It is on matters such as these, that Mrs Gandhi's loyalty to India is truly put to the test. Will Mrs Gandhi, like the agents of the British East India Company, promulgate one-sided laws that favor businesses in the EU, the US and Japan, even while these countries prevent the free export of Indian goods to their markets? Will Mrs Gandhi expedite the unequal integration of the Indian economy into the economic ambit of the G7 (of which Italy is a member)? Will Mrs Gandhi continue and accelerate the retreat of the Indian state from it's social responsibilities towards the Indian masses?

When Mrs Gandhi loudly proclaims that she is Indian - what sort of an Indian is she? The sort that has contempt for the needs of the poor, but is always willing to satisfy every whim and fancy of the world's marauding foreigners?

The record of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation

If one went by her record in running the Rajiv Gandhi foundation, the evidence is quite plain and visible. The Rajiv Gandhi foundation is one of India's most well endowed Indian NGOs. But unlike even the most mediocre of Indian NGOs it has done little to help India or Indians, even in a small way. Unlike rural NGOs that try to run village schools, or educate villagers about watershed management or animal husbandry, the Rajiv Gandhi foundation has never done anything of the sort. Unlike NGOs that try to promote sustainable technologies in order to conserve scarce resources, or NGOs that try to promote clean air or clean water by fighting for stricter pollution laws, the Rajiv Gandhi foundation has never taken up such causes. Unlike NGOs that champion the rights of India's homeless children or child labourers, the Rajiv Gandhi foundation has done little to promote the cause of India's most desperate and most vulnerable. But be that as it may. After all, in the new dispensation of things, the poor and helpless don't really count.

But does India's middle class count? According to recent press reports, the Rajiv Gandhi foundation has not even done what some charitable institutions and trusts have been doing for years in India - supported talented individuals from India's middle class. It has never offered grants to a talented Indian scientist, or artist, or musician or sports person. It has not even offered it's assistance for research into diseases that mostly hit the rich and middle class, such as cancer or heart disease.

It is not as if the Rajiv Gandhi foundation has not spent any money. It has simply not found any Indians or Indian causes to spend it's money on. But it has found several needy individuals to support in the richest and most heavily armed nations on this planet.

It has found artists and intellectuals from the EU, Japan and the US (of dubious merit, and little value to India) to sponsor. It has held elaborate exhibitions of tasteless avant-garde arts and crafts, and textiles from nations that constantly lecture India on opening up it's economy. Nations that put quotas on high quality Indian exports. Nations that couldn't compete with India during the 18th century on the basis of fair trade. Even the most biased of Indians will acknowledge that in the realm of the arts and crafts, India has little to learn from the industrialized nations. Although she has laid claims to the traditions of the Nehru family,

Mrs Sonia Gandhi has seldom espoused any admiration or respect for the magnificent tradition of arts and crafts in India. One may debate the contribution of the Nehru family to Indian nationalism, but most members of the Nehru family took a certain pride in India's history and especially it's gorgeous tradition in the decorative arts. Mrs Indira Gandhi had taken an active interest in promoting the Festivals of India around the world. The Rajiv Gandhi foundation has not even done that.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi may have learnt well the art of appealing to the nation's emotions, but she has surely not imbibed even an iota of the genuine pride her mother-in-law had for the nation of her birth. What then of Mrs Sonia Gandhi's Indianness? Just that she married a very powerful and influential Indian?

On National Defence

Mrs Sonia Gandhi's foreign birth may be forgiven, but her lack of identification with Indian causes, with things Indian - is what ought to be her biggest indictment. Her record with the Rajiv Gandhi foundation is the only record by which she can be judged. And that record should worry any freedom-loving and patriotic Indian. With a record such as hers, every Indian concerned with the state of the world, and India's genuine defence needs should be at least a little suspicious. How will Mrs Gandhi decide on matters of defence preparedness. Who would she listen to? India's best security analysts or some highly-paid CIA hack?

It is notable that Mrs Gandhi has made no apologies for India putting off it's nuclear tests under pressure from the US. The government of her predecessor, Mr Rao had given permission for India to conduct nuclear tests in the earlier 1990s. But a mole in the government provided the US with that information, and the government caved in to US pressure to suspend the tests. The government also aceeded to US pressure to shelve the Agni missile program.

Not once has Mrs Gandhi addressed reasonable concerns that her government would allow the US to once again dictate India's security needs. With the ferocious NATO attack against Yugoslavia, something that has horrified and alarmed most Indians, the need for India to have a strong defence - for the Indian government to protect itself from moles and spies is extremely important. Could any sane Indian entrust Mrs Gandhi with that awesome responsibility?

It is one thing that Mrs Sonia Gandhi herself has never publicly condemned the US or the EU for it's vicious and criminal attacks against civillians in Iraq or Sudan or Yugoslavia. It is one thing that she has never expressed shame for the actions of the nation of her birth. But even her closest allies in the Congress have been anything but consistent when it comes to defending Indian national interests.

Consider the statements that emanated from the Congress after the nuclear tests. One day, they were hailed as an achievement of Indian scientists and necessary for India's security. The next day, a different spokesperson claimed that the tests may have jeopardized India's security interests and "damaged India's standing in the world". India's tests certainly hadn't damaged it's ties with other developing nations. But the US and Britain were furious. Did the Congress think that the US and Britain alone comprise the community of nations?

The Congress took a similiarly ambiguous positions vis-a-vis the CTBT. On the one hand it criticized the BJP for being too ready to sign the CTBT. On the other, it did not make any promises about not signing the CTBT itself. This was a devious ploy - because it could attack the BJP for being weak on the CTBT, but hold on to the possibility of giving in to US pressure when it came to power.

But what is worse is the unseemly manner in which senior members of the Congress have publicly attacked the nuclear tests. Mr Salman Khursheed - considered a sort of expert on India's foreign relations and defence needs in the Congress, repeatedly criticized the nuclear tests and blamed the tests for hurting Pakistan and damaging Indo-Pak relations on a nationally broadcast television talk show. Although he was lucky that the audience neither booed nor lynched him after the show, the treacherous nature of his comments needs to be exposed.

First, he made the serious error of analyzing India's nuclear tests in the context of India-Pakistan relations alone, thus displaying a grevious lack of sensitivity to India's genuine security concerns. Former Prime Minister Mr I. K Gujral had hinted at the reasons why India needed nuclear tests. He had spoken of a uni-polar world. Of how the Indian Ocean had been nuclearized by the US and NATO against India's wishes. That the US maintained a nuclear base in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and had rejected India's concerns about that. That prior to India's first set of tests, the US had sent in a nuclear powered aircraft-carrier to threaten India at the time of the Bangladesh liberation war. Any "expert" on India's security concerns could not be ignorant of these points.

Second, in blaming India for damaging Indo-Pak relations, he conveniently ignored the fact that it has been Pakistan that has done everything possible to harm Indo-Pak relations.

Was Mr Khursheed not aware that it was Pakistan that betrayed the sub-continent by insisting on the flawed two-nation theory in the first place. That India had correctly, and in a principled way, rejected the two-nation theory and respected the right of India's muslims to live in India as equal citizens in a secular country. That India had accepted an unfair partition of the sub-continent by not insisting that India get a share of the Muslim majority land, as it should have, considering it was willing to let Muslims stay within India. That Pakistan had made it impossible for Hindus to remain in Pakistan - an overwhelming majority of whom were turned into hapless refugees. That Pakistan had tormented India over Kashmir more than 50 years. That it was Pakistan who had instigated three border wars with India. That it was Pakistan who was arming and abetting terrorists in Kashmir both before and after the nuclear tests. That some "liberal" Pakistani analyst had called for a possible NATO-led invasion of India over Kashmir. That this had been published in Pakistan's major newspaper, the DAWN. (No Indian newspaper has ever published anything as provocative vis-a-vis Pakistan) That even as Mr Salman Khursheed was pandering to Pakistani interests in front of an Indian television audience, Pakistan was at that very moment engaged in a nasty border confrontation with India that has been maiming and killing helpless Kashmiri residents (both Hindu and Muslim) almost every day.

It would be one thing if Mr Khursheed was any ordinary member of the Congress. But he is reputed to be a very close ally and confidante of Mrs Gandhi, and is projected to take on the post of India's foreign minister in a Sonia Gandhi cabinet. Can India allow such an irresponsible and unpatriotic Indian to guide India's foreign affairs? These are troubling questions. With the departure of Mr Pawar from the Congress, the Congress has lost one of few in the party to take a strong and clear position vis-a-vis the nation's defence. And Ms Gandhi herself has so far failed to make the case as to why patriotic Indians should trust her to lead the way into the next century in a gruesomely violent uni-polar world. A Congress win could make India even more vulnerable to external threats.

As a developing nation, India's Prime Minister must not only meet the minimum qualifications of being well versed in important areas like defence and economy, the best candidate should also able to articulate, and help realize ordinary peoples aspirations to improve their lives. Mrs Gandhi's record with the Rajiv Gandhi foundation is hardly encouraging in this respect. And there are serious question marks about whether she could be trusted with the nation's defence and economy.

As one probes deeper, Mrs Gandhi's case for the Prime Minister's job would be laughable if she weren't so close to almost achieving that goal. Her Italian birth is a mere technicality. But her record - or rather, lack of it is the real problem.

That the Congress has chosen to unanimously rally around a leader such as her suggests that it is not Mrs Gandhi alone that needs to make her case before the Indian public, but the entire party needs to make it's case as to why patriotic Indians, why Indian who crave for social progress, why Indians frustrated with state of the nation's infrastructure, why Indians upset with nepotism and corruption in public lives, should cast their lot with them.

India paid a very heavy price in two centuries of colonial rule. If we have learnt anything from that experience, we need to demand more of our leaders than just who they married, and their ability to stumble through cleverly worded prepared speeches. A venal band of myopic party-loyalists may project any one as "Party Leader". But Indians will have their day in determining if their choice prevails. If they persist with the "She is the Nation's Bahu" defence of their leader, and can say nothing else on her behalf, then every self-respecting Indian deserves to give this decrepit survivor of the Indian National Congress and it's craven allies the most fitting and most punishing rebuke at the polls.