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Settle the issue

Settle the issue

Author: Editorial
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 18, 2007

Can foreign-born hold high office?

The Supreme Court has done the right thing by admitting the review petition of the Rashtriya Mukti Morcha that had been earlier rejected by the Delhi High Court, seeking, in essence, a judicial clarification on whether a person of foreign origin who is not a citizen of India by birth can hold high public office in this country. The petition, in a sense, is directed over disquiet that still persists in some quarters, perhaps justifiably so, at the possibility of Congress president Sonia Gandhi assuming high public office - for instance, becoming Prime Minister - in future. But the issue at stake need not be seen merely from the perspective of the petitioners. Indeed, that perspective is rather narrow and does not address concerns over the possibility that even a person of Indian origin living abroad at present and who is not a citizen of this country by birth, could return to India and stake claim to constitutional office. Would the fact that he is of Indian origin make his case stronger than that of a person of foreign origin? Can the grey area of the Constitution, that was meant to facilitate the accommodation and ensure full citizenship rights of those wishing to settle in India after the partition of 1947, become a facilitator for individuals who cannot stake claim to the protection that was originally conceived of by the Constituent Assembly with a specific purpose in mind? Should India's citizenship law continue to remain riddled with apparent loopholes at a time when similar laws around the world are being revised to make them more stringent and fool-proof? And, last but not least, can India choose to be different from every other country in the world, including enlightened and liberal democracies, where the simple rule of thumb that is followed lays down that a person of foreign origin, or a person who is not a citizen by birth, cannot assume high office of state?

These and related questions have come to haunt us because of circumstances that are the creation of twists and turns of history - the tragic assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the equally tragic death of Rajiv Gandhi. But for these tragedies, Ms Sonia Gandhi would not have found herself pushed to the forefront of Congress politics. At a popular level, it is entirely possible that her original identity as an Italian has been overwhelmed by the identity she has acquired through marriage and current citizenship law. However, popular perceptions, such as they are, cannot be the substitute for rationale logic. Nor can India's future be hostage to treacly sentiments that flow from residual attachment to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or are rooted in paternal notions of gender and family - a bahu has no identity of her own, she assumes the identity of her husband. Unless these issues are addressed in a dispassionate manner and a definite pronouncement made by the judiciary on whether a person of foreign origin can hold high public office, Ms Gandhi will needlessly continue to be the subject of intense debate and wild speculation. Neither is desirable for our democratic process; nor should she be disallowed the right to be spared from often vicious attacks and whisper campaigns by her detractors, some of them in the party she leads. The issue has lingered on far too long and needs to be settled. If that requires an overhaul of our existing citizenship law and removing grey areas in the Constitution, so be it. There is nothing personal about the larger question of who can lead a nation. It is about national interest. Those who cavil against this proposition or object to rigorous judicial scrutiny of our citizenship law, cannot have India's interest uppermost in their minds.

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