Date: 5/5/2004


CITIZENSHIP DEBATE The constitutional provisions by S. Sahay

FOR the Congress, the debate over the foreign birth of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, is a self-inflicted wound, and, as in the case of all such wounds, would take longer to heal than those inflicted by others.

The question whether a naturalised citizen, as against a born citizen, can, or ought to, hold the post of President, Vice-President or Prime Minister cannot now be wished away and hence had better be seen in proper perspective.

It must be borne in mind that, if our Constitution-makers failed to deal with the problem, it was because they could simply not visualise, as they had not visualised the many other unwelcome developments that were to follow — for instance, unabashed defections and loot of the State’s resources — that a time would come when a dead Prime Minister’s foreign-born wife would be a claimant to Prime Ministership.

Acknowledgedly, the provisions on citizenship gave the Constitution-makers more trouble than any other provision. One draft followed another, and as many as 130 to 140 amendments were moved. Ultimately two broad propositions were made: first, that the attempt was not to lay down an all-comprehensive formula but to lay down the criteria of citizenship at the time of the commencement of the Constitution; second that Parliament would be free to legislate on citizenship in a comprehensive manner.

Both the Constituent Assembly debates and their outcome show that the Constitution-makers were trying to grapple with the problems created by Partition, the effects of migration to the two countries, the place of those who had agitated for Partition but, after the deed was done, had stayed back in India; the place of those who had migrated to Pakistan but wanted to come back; the status of those who lived in what had earlier been French or Portuguese possessions, and the place of Indians who lived in various parts of the world.

Thus Article 5 of the Constitution dealt with citizenship at the commencement of the Constitution, Article 6 with the rights of citizenship of certain persons who had migrated to India from Pakistan; Article 7 with rights of migrants to Pakistan; Article 8 with citizenship rights of person of Indian origin residing outside India. Article 8 ruled out citizenship to those who had voluntarily acquired the citizenship of another country.

Then followed Article 11: “Nothing in the foregoing provisions of this part shall derogate from the power of Parliament to make any provision with respect to the acquisition and termination of citizenship, and all other matters relating to citizenship.”

It would be pertinent to point out that the President of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad, pointed out that a significant omission was the omission of the status of a foreign woman married to an Indian citizen — perhaps he said this more as an able lawyer than as a person possessing clairvoyance.

Parliament did subsequently pass the Citizenship Act of 1955, which dealt with the situation that obtained after the commencement of the Constitution. However, once again it failed to visualise the issue that has cropped up today.

Thus it is wholly erroneous to suggest that, in keeping with the liberal traditions and ethos of the country, Parliament had deliberately not disqualified a naturalised citizen from holding the posts of President, Vice-president and Prime Minister. It is the same Parliament which has considered the government’s permission necessary for defence services officers and diplomats marrying foreigners. If it has not done so in the case of the three highest offices in the land, it is because it had not been able to foresee the shape of things to come.

If President Narayanan’s wife is a naturalised citizen, it is because the President was a diplomat and was granted the permission to marry a foreigner. This rule did not apply to a pilot, which is what Rajiv Gandhi was when he married Sonia.

Now that the issue has been raised in a big way the voters had better exercise their minds over the issue and give a clear verdict — either way.

The issue has both rational and emotional strains. Rational arguments have been put forward to show that not many countries open up their top jobs to naturalised citizens, the USA being the prime example. Those who argue in favour of Mrs Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister take into account her leadership of the party, her being a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and the late-in-the-day objections of the likes of Mr Sharad Yadav, Mr Purno Sangma and Mr Tariq Anwar, apart from the BJP men.

It goes without saying that the issue can only be decided in the people’s court. And the people comprise the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots, the learned and the illiterate. Let the political parties contesting the parliamentary elections canvass at every level and include the issue in their manifestos, posing this and some other constitutional issues that are germane to the survival of parliamentary democracy. And let suitable legislation follow the election.

The answer to the issues raised by Mr Sharad Pawar, Mr Purno Sangma and Mr Tariq Anwar is not expression of sycophantic loyalty to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. This may consolidate Mrs Gandhi’s hold on the party, but then the Congress is not India — it never was.

Clearly, Mrs Gandhi has been able to consolidate her hold on the party. If she sticks to her resignation from party presidentship, she may receive popular acclaim, but then whether this will trickle down on her party cannot be said with any degree of certainty.

However, she will have much to lose if she does ultimately choose to withdraw her resignation. The resignation will then be viewed as another melodrama and would fool few.

The choice before Mrs Sonia Gandhi is by no means easy.


The Congress imbroglio by P.D. Shastri

The Congress is in a dilemma; it can do neither without Mrs Sonia Gandhi nor with her. She is the only leader who can keep disparate elements in the multi-dimensional Congress united. The letter bomb that shook the Congress as well as the nation was authored by three have-nots (who have now been expelled from the party), the chief being Mr Sharad Pawar, who felt that as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, he alone should have been called by the President (and not Mrs Sonia Gandhi) to try to form the ministry. He alone was the Prime Minister presumptive, ex-officio.

But since mere selfishness cannot serve as a legitimate and credible plea, some other basis had to be invented — namely, Sonia’s foreign birth. That was a hard fact, when the whole Sonia chapter started. But now all of a sudden her foreign origin has assumed importance, and somehow it has started to cut much ice with the masses. A new wind is blowing. Why cannot a nation of nearly a hundred crore find one native to rule over the country? A similar argument was floated by other aspirants for power (the Syndicate) in Indira Gandhi’s time too. Yet, subsequently, she proved to be the greatest Prime Minister (even better than her father), for she made history by creating Bangladesh and inflicting a crushing defeat on Pakistan by taking nearly a hundred thousand POWs.

Only a few months ago, when Mrs Sonia Gandhi entered the fray, she started her career of electoral victories. She put life into the dying body of the Congress; experts wave writing off the Congress as an important institution that was passing into history. Like other members of the Gandhi-Nehru family, she was drawing massive crowds and garnering votes by the million, as no other Congress leader could do. Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh fell to her at her call. The Congressmen were sure that their messiah had come, who would sweep the polls and get them into seats of power. Mrs Sonia Gandhi was their best bet against Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, who otherwise seemed to be growing stronger day by day. She, and not any other leader, was their hope. She seemed to be the great vote-getter.

What would be the scene sans Sonia? Half a dozen men from the Congress and another half a dozen from outside would fight for the top job. There being no obvious choice, we would have the short-timed regimes of little men. There would be no great leader from the Congress side to give a fitting battle to Mr Vajpayee. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has an international personality and a global stature.

How about her accident of birth in a foreign land? Italy? Rome? Instead of Ram Rajya, we would be having Rome Rajya was the catch phrase. India always had a cosmopolitan outlook – Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is our family). Her foreign nativity is an after-thought that has come to us rather late in the day. We should have shown this fact all along the line. And yet it did not have that weight, which it has suddenly assumed in the present, propelled by leaders, whose self-interest invented this catch-word to floor the Congress revival and themselves ride to power.

And then the Indian tradition is that a married woman totally leaves her past (even obliterates her maiden name) and becomes an indistinguishable part of her husband’s family. Sonia has shed her Italian past after marriage. Such are arguments brought forward to deprive her and to help oneself.

She has no administrative experience in the government. That was said of Indira Gandhi too and more vociferously of Rajiv Gandhi. It is not a proven fact that Mr Pawar would prove a better Prime Minister than Sonia. He too is untested in that capacity.

All this is not an advocacy for Sonia’s Prime Ministership. It is only to prepare the ground so that Congress can give a fight to Mr Vajpayee’s BJP on equal terms. Let the people choose. Otherwise, with the Congress divided under many leaderships and little-known provincial leaders dreaming of ruling over this great and ancient land, the BJP would have almost a walk-over which they would most dearly cherish. It is like making a present of the Indian government on a platter.

Where do we go from here? Let Mrs Sonia Gandhi — for the time being at least — retire from the race for power. The Congress can give her an exalted position — something like Gandhiji had — to work as the moral conscience of the nation and keep the government on the right track, as the people want.Let Mrs Sonia Gandhi stay as the party President and guide the government. If they would take her guidance, it would be a fair contest between the BJP and the Congress.

Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy on Monday said that there is a 'clear legal bar' on Congress president Sonia Gandhi becoming the prime minister because of a 'reciprocity' proviso to Section 5 of the Citizenship Act.

The proviso stipulates that an Indian Citizenship, conferred under this section to an Italian, shall be subject to the same conditions and restrictions that apply to Indians, who sought Italian citizenship, he told a press conference.

In Italy, a naturalised citizen could not hold a high public office like the prime minister of the country.

"Because of the conditional reciprocal nature of Sonia Gandhi's Indian citizenship, she is disqualified to become the prime minister," he said.

He claimed to have consulted legal experts and legal officers of the country, who had concurred with his views, and has written to Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani to issue a Government Order to make this position clear.

If the Centre does not issue an order, he would consider approaching the Supreme Court.