Seeing a foreign hand

Print edition : September 14, 2002

By raising the issue of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins in a loud and persistent manner, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has made a political move that promises to redraw the political battle lines.

THE issue of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin seems to have returned to the political stage after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa raked it up at a recent press conference in the national capital. Jayalalithaa, who was in New Delhi to attend the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) meeting, surprised everyone with the intensity of her unprovoked attack on Sonia Gandhi.

March 1999: AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa with Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi at the politically significant tea party that was hosted in New Delhi amidst threats by the AIADMK leader to withdraw support to the Vajpayee government at the Centre.-RAJEEV BHATT

It was obvious that the move was a planned one. Jayalalithaa began by saying that she had no intention of joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), quickly adding that this did not mean that she intended to join hands with the Congress(I) either. When no journalist asked her any further questions on the matter, she herself prompted them by saying: "Would you people not ask me why?" Then the tirade began.

From the character of her attack and the way she went on and on, saying the same things at two successive press conferences in Chennai, Jayalalithaa seems determined to enter a political battle the outcome of which is risky and uncertain. The response of other political parties opposed to the Congress(I) leaves no one in doubt that Jayalalithaa intends to provide them with a tool to embarrass a resurgent Congress(I) in the next elections. For the Congress(I), this issue has been a sensitive one. If the party believed that the issue had been buried following the Supreme Court's ruling in the matter or by the fact that people had voted it to power in 14 States, the resurrection of the issue is a reminder that this is not the case, at least as far as its political opponents are concerned.

At the press conference on August 28, the media had expected that Jayalalithaa would attack Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna since she had stormed out of the CRA meeting, where the Prime Minister was present. Her attack on Sonia was therefore doubly unexpected. Having prepared the sub-text, Jayalalithaa said the AIADMK was committed to supporting only an "Indian" for the Prime Minister's post. She added that having Sonia as Prime Minister would be a disaster for the country of one billion Indians. "It is a crying shame and moral bankruptcy of the Congress party that its leaders, who were at the forefront of the freedom struggle and fought against foreigners, should think of having a foreigner as Prime Minister," she declared. She said that she would support any legislation that would ban persons of foreign origin from occupying constitutional positions. Jayalalithaa seemed to have forgotten that it was only in 1999 that she had toppled the Vajpayee government to prop up a government led by Sonia Gandhi and that she had given a letter to this effect to President K.R. Narayanan. When she was confronted with this background, Jayalalithaa said with a straight face that she had never pledged support for Sonia as Prime Minister and that the support was only for a Congress(I)-led government.

The Congress(I), although taken aback, recovered quickly to hit back. Its spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy reminded the nation of Jayalalithaa's "selective amnesia". He pointed out that she had toppled the Vajpayee government to support a Sonia-led government and had aligned with the Congress(I) in the State elections. He said that the turnaround was because of her "pathetic compulsion" to cosy up to the Bharatiya Janata Party so that the Centre extricated her from the messy TANSI case (one of the corruption cases against Jayalalithaa), which is currently being heard in the Supreme Court. "Ms. Jayalalithaa is flogging a dead horse. The issue of Mrs. Gandhi's foreign origin is settled for once and all," Jaipal Reddy said, referring to the Supreme Court order.

In order to expose what it called Jayalalithaa's hypocrisy, the Congress(I) released her letter to the President dated April 21, 1999, which categorically said that "consequent on the situation arising from the vote of confidence lost in Lok Sabha by the Council of Ministers headed by Shri A.B. Vajpayee on 17th April 1999, the AIADMK has decided to extend support to a government to be formed by the Congress(I) led by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi." She also wrote that this decision was taken at a meeting of the AIADMK Parliamentary Party, which met at 10 a.m. on April 21, 1999. The Congress(I) also released a copy of the AIADMK resolution in order to demolish Jayalalithaa's case against Sonia. The resolution states: "The AIADMK Parliamentary Party at its meeting at 10 a.m. on the 21st April, 1999, hereby resolves to extend support to a government to be formed by the Congress(I) led by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi."

Even after being confronted with such evidence exposing her earlier stand, Jayalalithaa remained unfazed. She explained that she had never extended support for Sonia to become the Prime Minister but had only said that she would support the Congress(I), which was led by Sonia Gandhi, to form the government. She further said that at that time Sharad Pawar could have become the Prime Minister and that even Jyoti Basu's name was being considered. The manner in which she has continued her attacks on Sonia in Chennai makes it clear that she will not let go of the issue. At her September 2 press conference, she declared her intention to do all she could to stop Sonia from becoming Prime Minister, even if she had to travel the length and breadth of the country to be able to do so. "We should not allow a foreigner to sit in the throne 50 years after Independence," she said. Referring to Sonia Gandhi as Antonia Maino and a "political businesswoman", Jayalalithaa alleged that Sonia had "no loyalty or love" for India but still aspired to become the country's Prime Minister on the basis of a "marriage certificate". Trying to present her stance as a principled one, she claimed: "My only aim behind blocking Sonia Gandhi from becoming the Prime Minister is to strengthen Indian democracy. The evil of colonialism should not come in through the backdoor. Let us never repeat the mistake of making foreigners rule us". She appealed to other political parties to find an alternative to "Antonia Maino Gandhi".

Jayalalithaa's political motives in the matter are only too clear. She has not taken kindly to Sonia's declaration at a rally in Tamil Nadu, held on the occasion of the Congress(I)-Tamil Maanila Congress merger (Frontline, September 13), that the Congress(I) would come to power on its own in the State. Besides, she has shown that she is keen to keep the BJP in good humour, if only to wreck the BJP-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance.

WHATEVER her political motives, Jayalalithaa's diatribe against Sonia was music to the ears of leaders like Sharad Pawar. The BJP too was overjoyed; the party was finding it difficult to sustain its rhetoric on Sonia's foreign origin, especially after the Supreme Court ruling. The BJP's chief spokesman Arun Jaitely said: "Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is an issue on the NDA's agenda. Even though the Constitution Review Commission had not taken it up, there is a view that a simple change in law is needed to debar people of foreign origin from occupying a constitutional post." Although he would not commit on whether the BJP was in favour of this "simple change in law," the glee in BJP circles was obvious.

Even Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had maintained an ambivalent stand on the issue, has come out in support of Jayalalithaa's stand. He said that Sonia's foreign origin would be an issue in the next Lok Sabha elections and that his party would raise it. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), whose very raison d'etre was this issue, said that it would continue to voice the issue. This is despite the fact that the NCP is in the Congress(I)-led government in Maharashtra. Naseem Siddiqui, NCP spokesman, even dared the Congress(I) to opt out of the alliance on this issue. "Our basic stand of 1999 that a person of foreign origin should not become the Prime Minister cannot be compromised at all," said Siddiqui. It is significant that at a meeting of Opposition party leaders that took place at Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Somnath Chatterjee's residence, which was attended by Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujaral, and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and NCP president Sharad Pawar were notable absentees.

It is clear that the polarisation for the next Lok Sabha elections has begun with parties getting divided between the pro- and anti-Sonia camps. Laloo Yadav, owing to his own political compulsions in Bihar, has declared that Sonia was the "bahu" of the country. The Telugu Desam Party, with its long-standing anti-Congress politics in Andhra Pradesh, is expected to be in the anti-Sonia campaign.

So far, the Congress(I) has put on a brave face. Many of its leaders have reacted strongly against Jayalalithaa, promising mass protests should she visit Congress(I)-ruled States and other places as well. Jayalalithaa effigies have been burnt by Congresspersons in several centres, including in Tamil Nadu and in New Delhi. (In Tamil Nadu, the police have invariably cracked down on those venting their fury against the Chief Minister.) Evidently, Jayalalithaa is set to take the heat from Congresspersons wherever she ventures to.

There are also attempts to establish that despite her foreign origin, Sonia is the undisputed leader of the party. Such an attempt was visible when all the Congress Working Committee members and the 14 Chief Ministers passed separate resolutions expressing confidence in Sonia's leadership. With the possibility of the issue getting activised in the next general election campaign, the political battle ahead promises to be sharp and nasty.