'Sonia Shining, India Tarnished', 24 May, 2004.

By the time this column appears much of the drama in Delhi surrounding the formation of a new government would long have subsided. There would also be some relief that Dr. Manmohan Singh is the new prime minister of India. However, a world-wide discussion on the reasons for Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s turning down the prime ministership of the world’s largest democracy after having led her party to power, if not a overwhelming majority in parliament, is not going to die down so easily. So we may as well be clear about what it means for us as a people. I might as well state at the outset that I find reports by India’s pundits that by her action Indian democracy has been ennobled – as wrote a prominent Indian in the New York Times recently – is entirely self-congratulatory even if not consciously self-serving. By effectively holding out the threat of making her foreignness an issue the BJP had managed to cast a pall on the future of democratic governance in India. Sonia Gandhi was farsighted enough to see this and declined the prize that was rightfully hers.

After having spent crores of the taxpayer’s money in a preposterous campaign entitled `India Shining’ the BJP have now succeeded in having tarnished India’s image in the eyes of the civilised world. Pundits are far from right in seeing this as some sort of triumph of democracy in India. Indeed if democracy were strongly embedded in this society the BJP would not have been allowed to conduct a low smear campaign alluding to Sonia Gandhi’s ethnic origins. As for Sonia, she did not allow this to deter her in political battle, almost single-handedly defeating the bigots whose rule had decisively been rejected by the people of India. Clearly though at some stage, battle done, the sheer malice of the hate campaign evidently did catch up with her and she had chosen to step aside. In a democracy citizenship alone ought to matter. Whether Uma Bharti is an Hindu nun or George Fernandes was a Jesuit priest are their personal privilege and not a matter for negotiation with their political rivals. Thus even if anyone were to object to it they should be given no quarter when trying to make issue of it. That it was not so in the case of Sonia Gandhi, is the surest sign that we are far from being a mature democracy.

The BJP’s display of desh bhakti is not without adverse economic fallout. Contrary to baleful prognostication, greater integration with the rest of the world holds out much promise for India. Indeed India’s stance in world economic fora ought to be that the rest of the world’s excess of goods and capital are welcome here if India’s surplus labour is free to migrate internationally. Actually, it is already the case that Indian workers move some despite formal restrictions on migration. This feature has been overlooked, often deliberately, by Indian critics of globalisation both on the left and on the right. Now India’s claims to speak for a more democratic approach to globalisation has been undermined. Not only has it lost the moral highground, but also, if it can deny one of its own citizens a moral right to it highest office it can do little to advance the cause of it citizens who live and work in other countries, often under highly discriminatory regimes. India is watched closely because of the high principle it so actively assumes on the world stage. The world thus far has taken us at own word as reflected in the epithet "the world’s largest democracy". Now we should be prepared to be seen as xenophobic, a lot far worse than to have the western media refer to the "Italian-born prime minister of India".

It is ironic that Sonia Gandhi’s action is more in keeping with the timeless traditions of Bharat than the hatred spewed by the BJP. While ‘sacrifice’ is a term unlikely to be found in the lexicon of politics deriving from its practice in the great democracies of the west it has a long history in this country. In battling to produce "a strong, stable and secular government" while not taking for herself any of its rewards Sonia Gandhi has taken this tradition a step further. But one might prefer to take a more personal parallel. Recall that when Sita was finally invited to sit beside Ram at the Ashwamedha she had chosen instead to return to Bhoomi Devi, her mother. She had not forgotten her dismay that instead of being welcomed back after her ordeal in Lanka some small men of Ayodhya had chosen to query the provenance of the yet unborn Luv-Kush. Like the feckless Bourbons, as the BJP have learned nothing about this country they have forgotten nothing either.