This week, as America was marking the 50th anniversary of Brown (the landmark racial segregation 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 desegregation on the basis of race, a combination of religious and political interests in India managed to subvert election results by applying a distinction based 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 this week 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, her race.
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 like this:
“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!”
Unfortunately for 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.
After considering 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.