What A Shame

Why Sonia Gandhi ascendancy makes liberal-minded patriotic Indians hang their heads in acute embarrassment.


As I write this, the Congress Party-led coalition government in New Delhi is finalizing a Common Minimum Programme with its allies. The CMP ostensibly will hreflect a negotiated policy agenda for the various coalition partners to follow during this administration’s tenure.

While the country awaits the details, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s federal cabinet has been sworn in, and the old obscurantist fogeys of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party banished to a political vanaprastham. Secularism and youthful idealism, I’m told, are back in vogue.

Then, why am I ashamed to be an Indian?

Why, for that matter, should any liberal-minded patriotic Indian hang one’s head in acute embarrassment after a lawful regime change, particularly when it’s come riding on a popular vote? Why am I so despondent when the rest of my countrymen appear set to march to a jaunty new beat?


The reasons are numerous. They come to me in the form of a collage of television images that have seared themselves in my mind over the last two weeks. If proof was ever needed that a moving picture can reveal – albeit inadvertently -t he subtext of a scene, here it was. As individual snapshots of history-in-the-making, the images continue to be painful. Together, they portend an even darker future for India.

One had heard stories in the 70s and 80s about Congress partymen worming themselves into Indira Gandhi’s good books with appalling displays of sycophancy. Nothing, it turns out, has changed in the party culture – save for a new firang Queen Bee. For a full four live hours, television news channels showed scores – literally scores – of Congress men and women waiting impatiently in line at a party meet held in parliament, and then like one craven courtier after another, exhorting Sonia Gandhi to accept the prime ministerial post. It was sickening to watch some of them – otherwise suave and articulate – plead in the way drooling little chastened boys do before a stern recalcitrant mother.

Their ploy worked. The more impassioned among them secured a cabinet berth a few days later. These included the smart-alecky Mani Shankar Aiyar (now Petroleum Minister) and Kapil Sibal (now Minister for Oceanography) who knew the market value of being early on the scene, and so rattled off their dramatic moist-eyed speeches even before the others could make a move toward the podium. Not to be outdone was the loudmouth Renuka Choudhary (now Tourism Minister) who has made a decent career in politics out of her indecent emotional displays. Between barely controlled sobs, Choudhary made it known to millions of TV viewers that she shared a special personal rapport with Madam Gandhi. On his part, Bollywood actor Sunil Dutt (now Sports Minister) thundered away.

You’d have expected the newer generation to break the mold. The younger parliamentarians however fared no better. Scindia family scion Jyotiraditya even invoked his dead father Madhavrao’s Rajiv Gandhi connections in order to prove his party loyalty. After a point, it became mechanical and monotonous, like factory hands routinely punching muster cards prior to a work shift. But nobody would risk censure by stopping the charade.

The only person who could have was Gandhi herself. And she didn’t. She was in no mood to abort her moment of incandescent glory. Put yourself in her shoes: A shy lower-middle-class Italian-born woman marries into India’s premier political family, plays dutiful bahu, wife and mother, becomes the object of national devotion and ends up (at the time of writing) playing cat-and-mouse with the country’s highest and most powerful office! No script-writer from Hollywood, Bollywood or Italywood could have conceived a more sweeping turn-of-events story.

I am concerned also that the Congress victory in this election has probably swept Sonia’s foreign-born issue beyond the realm of political debate. I’m no apologist for the BJP, but I do have very serious problems with a foreigner deciding the fate of my country.

For one thing, isn’t even a single person among the billion-plus Indians capable and deserving? For another, being a country’s chief executive is not a 10-to-5 expatriate’s job. It calls for a national commitment higher than any other political office. The prime minister has access to the most sensitive information about defense installations and nuclear arsenal, and can – at a pinch-be expected to wage war. Nothing personal against Sonia, but to appoint a foreigner as PM would negate the spirit of our entire freedom struggle. There is a lot to be said in favour of restricting the job eligibility to natives. But that’s better detailed in a debate of its own.

It’s instructive though that even the United States of America – a land of immigrants, if ever there was one – won’t accept a foreign-born person as president. There was some talk of tinkering with this stipulation at the height of German-born Henry Kissinger’s popularity as secretary of state. And there’s even more talk of it since the California gubernatorial election last year, but it might take more than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s considerable muscular prowess to overturn that law.

Even if we overlook the foreign-origin issue, what has Sonia Gandhi done to be India’s prime minister? Apart, that is, from helping produce two cute-looking potential candidates for the PM’s post? More seriously, does she have a record of selfless social service to justify her claim? India has not been averse to foreigners – Annie Besant fought against British imperialism in India and Mother Teresa worked tirelessly for Calcutta’s orphans. Both had their critics, but none of their detractors would doubt their altruism and social commitment.

But Sonia’s public life has been narrowed by family concerns. She applied for and obtained Indian citizenship in 1983 – a decade and a half after her marriage to Rajiv – and her motivation reportedly centered more on safeguarding family rights to the Nehru property than anything else. Her decision to enter active politics coincided piquantly with the move by opposition parties to rake up the Bofors scam in which her husband was named.

One need not go into great analytical depth to explain Sonia’s electoral success. My American-based cousin used to half-joke that even the Kennedy family poodle could win the Massachusetts seat in the American Senate. The same goes for members of the Gandhi-Nehru family and India’s Lok Sabha. But the Congress victory although far from outright, was in large part a negative vote against the BJP. Sonia’s decision to abdicate the PM’s throne was doubtless surprising. But it may have at least something to do with her reluctance to sully her hands in the “cesspool” (Amitabh Bachchan’s word, not mine) of coalition politics.

Watching the TV reports of how the coalition was finally cobbled together was to watch a drama of palace intrigue at its most despicable. Leader after leader from small regional parties would demand top cabinet posts in closed-door meetings with the Congress, and then emerge in front of the cameras with a sage-like declaration that he had no aspirations to office.

What option do the Indians have to this bunch of jokers? Another bunch of jokers called the BJP. They lost because they spinelessly tried to cater to everyone’s expectations: to the Hindu hardliners they waved the trident and the saffron flag, to the yuppies they posed as hi-tech junkies, and to the rest they coined the “development” slogan of bijli-sadak-paani. However retrograde their ideology, BJP and its progenitor Jan Sangh were renowned for their focus and discipline. With this election, the party has lost face and voter credibility.

On TV, the two poster-girls of the BJP – Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj – were up to hijinks. Bharti, as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, chose to send her resignation to BJP president Venkaiah Naidu rather than the state governor. And Swaraj vowed on live television to shave off her head, eat roasted gram, and sleep on the floor as part of her nationwide campaign against Sonia Gandhi!

Is there a broader message in the election results? Is the Indian polity now a two-party system masquerading as a multi-party democracy? In a way, the Indian electorate faces the same predicament as the American public. Both are now reduced to choosing between two options. For Americans, it’s always been Democrats versus Republicans. For Indians in the long run, it could be the Far Right versus the Pseudo-Left. India’s communist parties have joined the Congress-led coalition, but are playing coy about joining the government.

Critics blast them for seeking power without responsibility. Sympathizers point to the ire of their cadres who fought the Congress party tooth-and-nail in the elections, and now find their leaders cozying up to the same Congressmen. It’s a strange phenomenon of being able to win an election, while being unable to enjoy its spoils. The lesson is clear: Form coalitions before not after an election.

Do I see any ray of hope in this dark alley? I do. One of my heroes – Arun Bhatia – contested from Pune as an independent, and lost. Not unlike Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election, he represented a clean option to the vested interests of established political parties. A retired IAS officer, Bhatia fought a corrupt system throughout his career and was persecuted some by his own unscrupulous peers for his efforts. If people take a fancy for honest officials like Bhatia, who knows, political parties may have to make way for independents, and we may well have a revolution on our hands.

Stranger things have happened.

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