Debating India


Fear Of The Family

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK

Monday 26 April 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

What makes the BJP run so scared of a weak Sonia, and attack her and the kids so?

"Everytime we come out of our house, Bofors also comes out."
- Rahul Gandhi

Editorial columns and opinion polls inform us that the Congress is a declining force, Sonia Gandhi an unmitigated disaster. Rahul and Priyanka, it is largely believed, have been fielded too late to make a big difference. The BJP-NDA is seen to be streets ahead in the electoral game. So, if Sonia is being dismissed as a non-starter (at least as a prime ministerial candidate), why are BJP netas wasting so much time and energy on abusing her, her foreign origins and her children? Why are the saffronwallahs so obsessed with Sonia and her children?

After all, the BJP had promised to run a more positive campaign that would focus on the achievements of the Vajpayee government.

’India Shining’ and ’feelgood’, they said, would help the BJP-NDA buck anti-incumbency. Its leaders claimed that like the assembly elections four months ago, the general election too would be fought on issues of governance and bijli-sadak-pani.

Yet mid-way through the campaign, many of them appear to have lost their way. The appearance of Rahul and Priyanka on the electoral scene has made them particularly edgy. For, ever since the siblings took their first steps in the electoral fray, BJP leaders have been screaming old slogans from the rooftops: Italian bahu, foreign origin, dynastic politics....

To add to the general Nehru-Gandhi-bashing, the ghost of Bofors too has been resurrected, courtesy a national daily. Any casual visitor to India could be forgiven for thinking that Sonia was in power and the BJP in the Opposition! Yet ask them and the entire galaxy of BJP leaders would deny that they are back to attacking the Nehru-Gandhis and insist their campaign is still about governance and Vajpayee’s leadership.

Which brings us back to the question: why attack Sonia and her children when they are not even in government? A veteran BJP MP admits that part of the answer lies in the old RSS/Jan Sangh obsession with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Remember, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi had banned the RSS. The antipathy to members of this family is perhaps as deep-rooted in leaders with an RSS background as the commitment to Hindutva ideology and the suspicion of minorities.

A BJP strategist admits that there is a great sense of frustration over the realisation that this election is just a semi-final for Rahul and Priyanka. Though the BJP has beaten the Congress in organisational resilience and inner-party dynamism, partymen feel that the siblings have the potential to whip up a wave in favour of the Congress. Unlike Sonia, her children are seen as a potential threat. Moreover, no one in the BJP can match Rahul and Priyanka for drawing huge spontaneous crowds.

There’s another, more complex reason as to why the BJP keeps attacking the family. The party has a great ideological reluctance to admit to a multi-party polity. By hammering away at Sonia, the BJP keeps up the illusion (for itself) of a bipolar polity. Though heading a coalition itself, the BJP can’t bring itself to admit that caste and regional parties will hold the balance of power in the next Lok Sabha. Both from the ideological and practical point of view, it is a bloc of these smaller parties that can create real problems for the BJP.

Given all this, the attack on Sonia ranges from the carefully calibrated to the downright offensive. The prime minister, for instance, seems to prefer oblique references rather than a frontal attack. Every now and then he makes a snide remark about dynastic politics. "In our party, leaders are not born, they have to work to prove themselves," is a typical soft Vajpayee broadside. Similarly, L.K. Advani chose his words with care when he told Outlook: "We don’t say that Sonia is not an Indian citizen.

But we are saying that she is an Indian of a foreign origin. For instance, Henry Kissinger was one of the most powerful advisors to US presidents for many years. But because he was of foreign origin, he could not himself stand for the presidency. That is why we feel there should be a debate on Sonia’s foreign origin."

But even before such a debate could take place, the NDA manifesto released on April 8 promised a legislation to debar people of foreign origin from occupying "important offices of the Indian state". This, presumably, means that another five years of NDA rule will effectively end Sonia’s prime ministerial dreams. Why, can she even become a central minister in the future, also an "important office of the Indian state"? Though Sonia’s Italian roots remain a legitimate issue for public debate, to bring about a legislation to debar one woman from public office seems somewhat excessive. Particularly as BJP spin doctors insist that the Sonia-led Congress is not even within smelling distance of power right now.

There are some in the BJP, though, who believe that below-the-belt swipes could prove counter-productive. As with the case of Narendra Modi. The Gujarat chief minister, for instance, plunged to new depths when he said that Sonia ("Italian Begum") and Rahul were not even qualified for the jobs of a clerk and driver. Even more tasteless was his remark at a public rally in north Gujarat: "Earlier people used to see the Congress symbol of a cow and calf and equate it with mother Indira and son Sanjay. Now farmers tell me that a Jersey cow and her hybrid calf have come to contest elections." In equally poor taste was Uttar Pradesh BJP leader Vinay Katiyar’s utterance that Sonia had brought bad luck to her family because both her husband and mother-in-law had been assassinated.

With her stilted manner and poor command over both Hindi and English, Sonia makes for a natural punching bag. But her children, oozing charm and at perfect ease in the rashtra bhasha evoke an altogether different threat. That is why BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan’s statement that the prime minister’s post should be restricted to only those whose parents were both Indians invited controversy. For the record, however, BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi maintains that aside from a "contempt for dynastic politics" the party has no objection to Rahul Gandhi entering politics.

Some BJP strategists, however, do realise that the relentless attack on Sonia and her children may generate sympathy for them. Says Rajya Sabha MP and editor of newsdaily Pioneer, Chandan Mitra, "I believe that the attack on the kids will not work. But the Sonia bashing is an inevitable part of an election campaign when you utilise all the ammunition in your arsenal."

The Congress likes to believe that the ruling party has brought Sonia’s foreign origin back into focus because its India Shining pitch is rebounding at the grassroot level. Says spokesperson Kapil Sibal: "We believe that the foreign origin issue concerns a small percentage of urban Indians but that is one section of society that has already turned away from the Congress. So the only reason they are going on about this is because their feelgood pitch has boomeranged." Sibal also believes that "the press is being managed by the ruling party to deflect attention from scams involving BJP leaders. The revival of the Bofors story is a joke and has only damaged the reputation of the publication and its editor".

Be that as it may, Sonia-bashing is back in vogue. The best she can hope for is that it generates some sympathy for her.


in Outlook India, Monday, april 26, 2004.

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