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Bellicose patriotism?

ANIL DHARKER

Issues of nationality have always confused us ... Raising them opens up issues of reciprocity ... .

IS Sonia Gandhi an Indian or a foreigner? "A foreigner," says J. Jayalalithaa. "A foreigner," says L.K. Advani (which according to the Congress party is one echoing the other). "A foreigner," say most people, especially if they belong to the middle-class, upper and lower.

We can only speculate on why the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has made Sonia Gandhi's origins into such a personal issue. Her predecessors in championing national purity have not been particularly distinguished in their motives: there was Advani himself, whose bellicose patriotism suddenly went mum (more of that later). Then there was Sharad Pawar whose jingoism was based on getting a political opponent out of the way and P.A. Sangma who was being His Master's Voice (his master being Pawar, but then you have to start somewhere).

You can understand (though not excuse) this quartet's shrill chauvinism: they each have a political agenda, and that, too often, leaves little room for intellectual discourse. But what about the upper middle classes who fill up corporate boardrooms, elegant drawing rooms and exclusive clubs? Many of them have intellects stretched at the best international universities and whose careers are dedicated to the opening of as many doors as possible. Why are their minds closed to this particular door?

In terms of her passport, Sonia Gandhi is as Indian as any of us: she applied for, and obtained, Indian nationality at some point in her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi. Presumably, if she wants to visit the place of her birth, she will have to obtain an Italian visa like any of us, (though she may not have to queue for it like us. But, then, nor would Jayalalithaa).

Nationality, however, can just be a piece of paper, a document of convenience. But in Sonia Gandhi's case, long before she obtained that piece of paper, she had been adopted into, had adapted to and, finally, become completely absorbed in an Indian identity. Stories of how the daughter-in-law became an integral part of Indira Gandhi's house-hold are legion. It's important to remember that these go back right to the time of her marriage, when not only she, but also her husband, had no political ambitions whatsoever, so no can accuse Sonia Gandhi of window dressing (or opportunism). Her Indianness began to be reflected in her clothes, her manner, her language and her attitudes, all of which are very similar to ours. Or, for that matter, Jayalalithaa's.

Inspite of that, if the middle-class is unable to accept Sonia Gandhi as Indian, what does it say?

What does it say, not of Ms. Gandhi, but of the middle-class itself?

Let's move to another country for a moment. Nasser Hussain, born in Hyderabad, is the captain of the English cricket team. Linford Christie, born in Jamaica, is Britain's Olympic sprint champion. Lennox Lewis, of similar origin, is Britain's world boxing champion. Greg Rusedski, born in Canada, plays Davis Cup for the British team. And it's not a case of just flying a sporting flag of convenience: Britain has several men and women of foreign (and Indian) origin who are members of parliament and the House of Lords, and a couple of them are part of Tony Blair's cabinet. One of them could one day become prime minister because once you are a British citizen you are a British citizen, and you have the same rights wherever you are born. In fact, Englishmen of Indian origin have gone to court in England if there has been any discrimination and have always won compensation.

Inquiries directed at the French, German and Italian consulates (yes, Italian too) brought a response of puzzlement: "Of course, any citizen of our country can become head of government," they said. "We don't have some first class and some second class citizens." So Ms. Jayalalithaa, if she so desires, can take up citizenship of Italy and can one day be its prime minister.

But issues of nationality have always confused us. We lay claim to V.S. Naipaul although Indian nationality hasn't been a feature of his family for generations, while we occasionally ask people from a particular community, who have known no other country but India to prove their citizenship by singing Vande Mataram. Do we detect opportunism and bigotry here?

L.K. Advani went very quiet on the issue of foreign origin when it was pointed out that he was born in what is now Pakistan. (If memory serves right, I.K. Gujral was born in Lahore, so we've already had a "foreign" P.M..) It's time for us (and that includes Jayalalithaa) to shut up too. Because the grounds she is treading on are dangerous. They open up issues of reciprocity, of how citizens of Indian origin are treated in other countries and also weaken our moral case for ensuring equality for citizens everywhere. The people who wrote our Constitution had a liberal vision, which the Jayalalithaas want to change. It's in our own interest to ensure that they fail.

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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