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The foreign hand worries them not - The Indian Express

Arati R. Jerath ()
February 17, 1998

Title: The foreign hand worries them not
Author: Arati R. Jerath
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 17, 1998

If voters in the New Delhi constituency can be used as a
yardstick to judge the public mood, Sonia Gandhi need not worry
about her foreigner tag. With wisdom born from the collective
consciousness of a race long used to assimilating outsiders, they
have chosen not to hold her Italian origins against her. They are
critical of her, of course. But not xenophobic. They lamented her
political naivete, her ignorance of the pitfalls of administering
a large and varied nation. Bofors is not an issue with them but
the Congress's corruption is. The Quattrocchi connection leaves
them cold but the discovery of Rs 3 crore in cash in Sukh Ram's
house angers them.

A whirlwind tour of the constituency was remarkable for what it
revealed about the Indian people. Not the chattering classes
whose rootlessness makes them susceptible to bigoted propaganda.
But ordinary people -jhuggi dwellers, Class-IV government
employees, small shopkeepers. Like the farmer whose link to the
soil gives him a sagacity not learnt from books, they have their
feet firmly on the ground and instinctively reject the

While politicians talk of a constitutional amendment which will
give only natural-born Indians the right to be prime minister,
voters know this will not make a jot of difference to their
lives. While politicians shriek that Sonia is "a foreigner
interfering in India's internal affairs, voters say that a bahu
is always an "outsider" who carries on the legacy of a family by
virtue of the fact that she has borne its heirs.

The gulf between the people of this country and those who want to
guide its destiny has never been more apparent than in their
differing perceptions of Sonia. The xenophobic attack on her
finds few takers among common voters. Even in an urban area like
Delhi, otherwise receptive to the Hindutva slogan, people are not
worried about the "foreign hand". The fact of the matter is that
Indians cannot be straitjacketed into "one people, one nation,
one culture". Unity in diversity has always been a better slogan
for it captures the spirit of a faith which centuries of invasion
have failed to destroy. Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu but he never
displayed the insecurity of a creed which needs to erect rigid
barriers to keep its flock together.

This does not mean that religion cannot be a mobilising force. In
a deeply superstitious country, it has a special place in daily
existence. The 1991 polls and the Ayodhya events prove that it
can be used for political gains if the symbol is powerful enough.
Sonia Gandhi's speech writers have been shrewd enough to sprinkle
her addresses with religious motifs. But unlike the Hindutva
brigade, they are careful to broad-base the appeal by harping on
universal themes while using Hindu images. The Gandhi doublespeak
is subtle.

Ultimately, the attack on Sonia may boomerang. What should have
been a Vajpayee-centric campaign blitz, with his "moderate" image
as the cutting edge, has turned into a bash-Sonia tirade. The
harbingers of a new destiny have been reduced to fighting the
ghosts of an old memory. Swadeshi and nationalism are competing
for public attention with syrupy images of shaami kababs in
Meerut and mishti doi in Calcutta.

Instead of concentrating on projecting themselves, her opponents'
public pronouncements and ground-level propaganda have become
Sonia-centric. Their issues have been overtaken by Sonia's
apologies and they have ended UP allowing her to set the poll
agenda by reacting to every barb from her.

Aid has come her way from the strangest of quarters. Rajiv
Gandhi's bitterest critic, V.P. Singh, has defended her on the
Bofors charge. The Left, which should see red at the mere mention
of the dynasty, never tires of saying there is nothing wrong with
Sonia assuming charge of the Congress.

The pro- and anti- voices have only helped to make Sonia Gandhi
the focus of the campaign and unwittingly turned these polls into
a referendum on the Nehru-Gandhi family. In the process, everyone
has played into her hands. If by some crazy miracle, the Congress
is in a position to form the next government, Sonia can
rightfully stake her claim to lead it. Foreigner or not, whatever
the Congress gains will be her victory, despite her not
contesting. The entire political spectrum has ensured this by
turning what started out as a one-horse race into a Sonia-versus-
Vajpayee battle.

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