In April 1999, I wrote an article on the inadvisability of Mrs Sonia Gandhi aspiring to the office of prime minister and had sent copies of it to The Statesman of New Delhi and Business Line of Chennai. It was not carried by either of them for nearly five weeks. I presumed they must have trashed it and forgot about it.
On the morning of May 16, 1999, I received a phone call from Mike Woolridge of the BBC for an off-the-record interview on my article on Sonia Gandhi, which had appeared in the Statesman of that morning. "When were you the intelligence chief of India?" he asked me. I replied I was never the chief of any intelligence agency and asked him why he posed that question.
He replied that the Statesman had carried my article as a second lead story on the front page under the heading 'Sonia, a security threat, says ex-intelligence chief' and asked me whether I wrote the article. I replied that I did write an article on Sonia Gandhi and sent it to the Statesman and Business Line, but thought they had both rejected it. I added that in my article I had drawn attention to some national security related problems that could arise if she became the prime minister, but nowhere had I described her as a security threat nor had I projected myself as a former intelligence chief. I had given my correct designation as a retired additional secretary at the Cabinet Secretariat.
Woolridge said there was talk among diplomats in New Delhi that I must have written the article at the instance of Mr Sharad Pawar and Mr P A Sangma, who had broken away from the Congress (I) the previous day over this very same issue. I replied it was rubbish and added that I did not know either of them.
The Times of India carried a report on its front page alleging that I must have drafted the statement issued by Pawar and Sangma. It claimed to see a similarity in the style and language used in my article and in their statement.
On May 19, 1999, I was pleasantly surprised to find my article figuring on the top of the editorial page of Business Line under a more correct five-column headline: 'Ms Sonia Gandhi as PM: Points to Ponder, Problems to Solve.'
In my article, I had stated as follows: 'Ms Sonia Gandhi would go up in the esteem of the people of India and the rest of the world were she to make a gesture of self-abnegation and announce that while she would continue to lead and guide the Congress (I) for which the Nehru-Indira Gandhi families have contributed so much, it would not be proper on her part to aspire to the office of Prime Minister. If the party gets the opportunity to form the Government, she should help in choosing some other leader for the post. Further, were she to take the initiative in proposing for inclusion in the Congress (I)'s manifesto, a promise for an amendment of the Constitution to lay down that only Indian citizens by birth can hold the offices of the President, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister, she will be the toast of India.'
Surprisingly, the article was ignored by the Congress (I). In a television interview, Shri Inder Malhotra, the eminent journalist, was asked whether it was a motivated article. He replied: "I know Raman well. He is not the type who will write an article like that with any hidden motive." In another interview, Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress (I) was asked about it. He replied: "I don't know who this Raman is. I wouldn't take him seriously."
The article elicited rebukes from many former intelligence chiefs. One asked: "What went wrong with you? " Another described it as unwise and stupid.
A few days later, I received a phone call from the late R N Kao, the founding father of R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing, India's external spying agency). He said: "Raman, somebody told me about your article which I had missed. I read it today. I wanted to compliment you. I hold Sonia Gandhi in great esteem and I know how Rajiv loved her and what affection Indira Gandhi had for her. She and her family would get involved in an unpleasant and divisive controversy if she aspired to the office of PM. I like your idea of self-abnegation. This needed to be voiced and only you would have had the courage to do so in such polite and compelling language."
I am not presumptuous enough to think that Mrs Sonia Gandhi decided to renounce her claim to the office of prime minister as a result of my article. But, I do feel that her decision shows she has the right instinct and has a tremendous capacity for lucid thinking.
Whatever the critics of those who had raised this issue might say, it was an important issue which had to be debated in a balanced manner in the intellectual and Constitutional plane on the basis of facts and figures. Unfortunately, during the recent election, it was raised by her opponents in an extremely offensive and indecorous manner, befitting more Hyde Park orators than responsible political leaders of a complex country like India.
The fact that her critics were defeated in the election does not mean that this issue is dead forever. Like the proverbial Phoenix, it will keep cropping up again and again, poisoning the political atmosphere and debate and creating one more cause of polarisation in an already much polarised society.
In many democracies, there is a simple mechanism in the form of a referendum to deal with issues like this. Whereas the results of the recent elections could be interpreted in conflicting ways on the question of the right of a citizen of foreign origin to aspire to high office, there could be only one interpretation to the results of a referendum. Either accepted or rejected.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi should persuade the Congress (I) to take the initiative for amending the Constitution with the support of all the parties in order to provide for a referendum. Thereafter, the Congress (I) government should hold a referendum on the single question: 'Should a person of foreign origin be entitled to hold office as the President, the Vice-President or the Prime Minister?'
If the majority votes yes, that would be the end of the controversy once and for all and the Congress (I) would re-emerge in the next election, whenever held, as the party with an absolute majority, totally marginalising all her opponents and confining them to political vanavas for many years.