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ARE foreign born, Indian citizens entitled to occupy the highest posts in the land – President, Vice-President, and Prime Minister – just to name the three most obvious and talked about? Constitutionally, the answer is clear. India, unlike some other countries, does not distinguish between native born and foreign born nationals; all citizens are entitled to the same consideration, and thus rights, under law.

So why the episodic outcry about the Italian origins of Sonia Gandhi, the latest example of which is Jayalalithaa’s outburst against the Congress Chief. It is unclear whether her ire is against a potentially resurgent Congress post merger with the TMC, now that the DMK is preoccupied with succession blues, or whether she is only jockeying for greater handouts from the Centre a la Chandrababu Naidu.

Few, however, can convincingly claim to ‘read the mind’ of the lady from Chennai. But whatever her reasons for raising this issue at this time, there is little doubt that it has struck a sympathetic chord in the Indian mind. For even though India is extolled as vasudhaiv kutumbukam, a land which has through the ages welcomed all without discrimination or distinction or whether, in more modern terms, we believe in a universal humanity and talk of a global village, it is difficult to deny an unconscious unease with leadership positions being occupied by one not perceived as ‘one of us’.

In more ways than one, Sonia Gandhi, both epitomizes and exacerbates this unease. Not just because of her obvious ‘foreigness’, but because the demands on and expectations of a political leader are vastly different from those of a CEO of a corporation, a social worker or even a religious figure viz. Mother Teresa. This may be one reason why invoking Annie Besant, once head of the Congress, or Madeline Slade a.k.a. Mira Behn, does not quite convince.

In terms of political culture, the Congress has never quite overcome the ‘stigma’ attached to its obsessive reliance on the ‘dynasty’. True that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, despite their ‘elite’ background did manage to become popular leaders, not just of their party but the nation. Possibly, even Rajiv Gandhi, despite the derisive appellation of ‘baba log’, won acceptance, particularly in his earlier youthful exuberance and desire to look ahead rather than to the past. Yet, let us not forget that at the time when both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv assumed leadership of their party and became prime ministers, there was widespread scepticism about their leadership qualities. This unease continues to be more marked in the case of Sonia Gandhi.

No one can question the right of a party to select its own leader; that is its democratic right. It, however, does not stop people from wondering why the party, despite a hoary legacy, has to continually fall back on the dynasty, even when the individual in question is constrained by obvious handicaps. The unease then is both with the individual and her qualities as with the collectivity which has elected her.

Sonia Gandhi may well surprise the sceptics and grow into a successful leader of her party, or indeed the country. That, however, is a matter for the future, and one to be settled by the political process. It is thus a matter of some relief, and pride, that the Constitution Review Committee, despite intense lobbying by the former Speaker, P.A. Sangma, refused to place the issue of foreigners being barred from certain positions on its agenda.

Yet, in a political culture so concerned about both ascribed (caste, religion, ethnicity) and acquired (class, marital status) characteristics of those seeking political office, to argue that foreigness or membership to a family are strictly internal or irrelevant issues is surely stretching the argument. If anything, such protestations are more likely to be read as obsequious formulations of loyalty to the leader if not filibustering to forestall genuine debate.

By no means is this an easy dilemma to resolve. All efforts to draw boundary lines between acceptable ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ can spur xenophobia, as is clear in the outpourings of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the spokespersons of the VHP and the RSS. Evidently, they have a limited understanding of India as a multicultural society. And yet, if we are so sensitive to two Muslims simultaneously occupying the two top constitutional positions (one argument advanced against the candidature of both Najma Heptullah and Farooq Abdullah for Vice-Presidency once Abdul Kalam was elected President), then should we be surprised and horrified if Sonia Gandhi’s attributes form the agenda for political debate?

Harsh Sethi