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April 23, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Kanchan Gupta

Where was Sonia when India was at war? And after Mrs Gandhi lost in 1977?

It was interesting to read Professor Ashutosh Varshney's thoughts on the question whether Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is Indian. And it was amusing to note how ill-informed he is about citizenship laws, as well as electoral laws, of not only India but also the United States of America. Above all, it was surprising that an associate professor at Columbia University should double up as a propagandist, that too of such low calibre.

Whether or not Sonia Gandhi nee Maino should be entrusted with the responsibility of heading the government of India has nothing to do with "secular nationalism" or "Hindu nationalism." It has nothing to do with Veer Savarkar's definition of a Hindu, which Professor Varshney has quoted. It has nothing to do with India's alleged pluralist, multi-ethnic identity. It has nothing to do with the fact that she owes allegiance to the Vatican -- an allegiance that transcends her claimed allegiance to India. It has nothing to do with the patriotism of indigenous Indians (especially Sikhs and Bengali Hindus) which Professor Varshney has questioned.

It has everything to do with the fact that Sonia Gandhi nee Maino was born an Italian and that there exists no public knowledge, leave alone evidence, of the fact that she has voluntarily repudiated her Italian citizenship. I shall come to this point later. First, the point about the ethics of entrusting her with the responsibility of heading the Government of India.

Addressing a rally during the general election of 1998, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino had said, "I am an Indian till my last breath." A noble thought, indeed. But the mere expression of that thought does not erase uncomfortable facts which must now necessarily be resurrected because she is no longer a private person beyond public scrutiny. The uncomfortable questions that arise from these facts need to be dealt with by the President of the Republic of India before he decides whether or not she can be entrusted with India's most coveted public office.

Sonia Gandhi nee Maino felt the need to proclaim that she is an Indian till her last breath only after she entered the political arena and needed to establish her credentials with the unwashed, but fiercely patriotic, masses of middle India. What she did not tell them was that she had retained her Italian passport and Italian citizenship, not feeling the need to accept Indian citizenship, till 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi married Sonia Maino in 1968. Under India's citizenship laws (not framed by Hindu communalists but Congress secularists in the 1950s), she was entitled to seek Indian citizenship five years after her marriage, that is in 1974. But she chose not to register as an Indian citizen for the next 10 years. That could not have been a casual oversight. Indeed, two incidents during these 10 years suggest that it was a considered decision not to repudiate her Italian citizenship.

Let us then go back to those 10 years. During the India-Pakistan war of 1971 (coinciding with the liberation struggle of Bangladesh), under emergency provisions, the leave applications of all Indian Airlines pilots were cancelled so that they could be used for providing logistical support. The only exception was Rajiv Gandhi, a full-time pilot with Indian Airlines. Sonia Gandhi nee Maino, who now claims that she is an Indian till her last breath, flew off to Italy with Rajiv Gandhi and their two children.

While indigenous Indians serving as pilots with Indian Airlines stood by to serve their motherland, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino and family remained in the more congenial surroundings of Italy during the entire duration of the war, returning only after General Niazi had signed the surrender papers.

The other incident, once again resurrected from those 10 years. After news came in that the Congress and Indira Gandhi had been defeated in 1977, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino packed an overnighter and, with husband and children in tow, took refuge in the Italian embassy in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri. It took the combined efforts of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and the other 'bahu' of the household, Maneka Gandhi nee Anand, to convince her to return to the Gandhi home.

Therefore, the record shows that Sonia Gandhi nee Maino who now aspires to be the prime minister of India chose not to be an Indian till it was pointed out that it would be awkward for Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, to have an Italian spouse. In other words, she has been a citizen of India for a mere 15 years -- the exact date of her conversion from Italian to Indian has never been disclosed to the people of India whom she now wants to rule. The record also shows that she fled from India in wartime. The record also shows that she was perfectly eager to desert her mother-in-law, indeed the 'dynasty' that she now flaunts as her asset, in her hour of need.

Now, the point about her citizenship and whether or not that entitles her to the prime minister of India's office. Seen from a narrow, legal perspective, there is nothing that prevents Sonia Gandhi nee Maino from assuming charge as prime minister of India. The Constitution of India, unlike the constitutions of many Western and Asian countries, puts no such bar on her. Unlike the USA, Finland, Germany, Thailand or Singapore, India does not insist that the aspirant for the top job should be a natural born citizen.

For a moment, let us assume that instead of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Maino had married an American. She could not have aspired for, forget her staking claim to, the American presidency. Article II, Section 1(5) of the American constitution would have debarred her from that office. It says, 'No person, except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the USA at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President…'

No such provision exists in the Constitution of India -- not because it was framed by "secular nationalists" but because no member of the Constituent Assembly could have ever imagined that 50 years after Independence, a foreigner would be in the race for the prime minister's job. If they had, they would have surely incorporated necessary safeguards. Since they did not do so, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is perfectly eligible to apply for, and secure, the prime minister of India's job.

But, should the President of India merely go by the law book and not take note of implications that could come to affect the very functioning of the prime minister's office?

Under the Indian Citizenship Act, there are three categories of Indian citizens -- citizens by birth, citizens by registration and citizens by naturalisation. I am an Indian citizen, so is Sonia Gandhi nee Maino. But I am an Indian citizen by birth, which means nobody can deprive me of my citizenship. On the other hand, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is a citizen by registration, which means that under Indian laws, her citizenship, like that of those who are citizens by naturalisation, can be taken away and she can be deported.

Sonia Gandhi nee Maino might well claim that she is an Indian till her last breath, but that does not mitigate the conditions and restrictions governing her Indian citizenship. Her citizenship by registration can be taken away under Section 10 of the Citizenship Act if the Government of India is satisfied that (a) the registration was obtained by means of fraud or concealment of material facts; (b) the registered citizen is disloyal or disaffected towards the Constitution of India; and, (c) the registered citizen raded or communicated with an enemy during war.

What if, after assuming office, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is held guilty of any or all these charges by a court? Would it not tarnish the office she aspires for? And would she be comfortable in office, constantly concerned about the durability of her citizenship?

There are other related issues that must impinge on the President of India's mind when he sits down to work out who is best placed to take charge as the next prime minister. One of them is the fact that under Italian law, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino continues to be an Italian citizen. That is, provided she has not voluntarily repudiated her citizenship by birth in writing. There is no public evidence to demonstrate that she has done so; therefore, it must be assumed that she enjoys dual citizenship under Italian law (Indian law does not permit it) and that she continues to have access to an Italian passport. It may sound frivolous, but she is as much eligible to become the prime minister of Italy as she is to become the prime minister of India.

A last point. The constitution of the USA demands that an applicant for American citizenship must be proficient in English, loyal to the USA and have basic knowledge of the constitution, the country's history and system of government.

If only the Constitution of India had similar guidelines, the indigenous people of India would have been spared the ignominy of being ruled by a person of foreign origin. For, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is proficient in no Indian language, including English; her loyalty to India is all of 15 years old; her knowledge of the Constitution of India is non-existent; she would fail the most elementary history test; and, beyond the fact that she wants to be the prime minister of India, it is doubtful whether she has an inkling about the Government of India.

After a new prime minister is sworn in, the Press Information Bureau publishes a pamphlet providing the biographical details of the incumbent. Till now, nobody has ever looked at the pamphlet because all the individuals who have held the prime minister's office, have led a public life -- their minutest biographical details have been public knowledge for decades if not more.

If Sonia Gandhi nee Maino is sworn in as prime minister of India, for the first time the PIB's pamphlet will be eagerly read. After all, India does not even know in which city was she born, what are the names of her parents, what school she went to, what language she is most comfortable with, how many elections she has won and lost, where all has she represented India, what is her favourite dish, who is her favourite Bollywood playback singer, who is her favourite poet, etc. The usual trivia that makes up a sarkari prime ministerial bio-data.

Kanchan Gupta is a political analyst based at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in Delhi and editor of the party's official organ, BJP Today.

Kanchan Gupta

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