May 15, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

The prejudiced view

Sonia Gandhi happened to visit Tirupati during her campaign for the 1999 general election. While in the famous temple town, she chose to go to the famous Hindu sanctuary in the Seven Hills.

It is a well-known fact that the guardians of the shrine may demand that visitors explicitly express their faith in the Hindu religion, signing a declaration if need be. (A proclamation to that effect is stuck at the gate.) Normally, the priests don't bother to make pilgrims attest their belief. But it is rather a different matter when somebody known to belong to another religion comes knocking at the door. And so one of the guardians pushed the paper for Sonia Gandhi to sign.

While she was still hesitating, Rajasekhara Reddy -- then touted as the Congress candidate for chief minister if the party won the assembly polls being held concurrently -- came to her 'rescue'. "Don't you know she is a daughter-in-law of the Nehru-Gandhi family?" he yelled. "She doesn't need to sign anything!" And with that the lady entered.

The incident created a minor storm in Andhra Pradesh. For one thing, such rudeness was not appreciated. For another, it was known to the voters of Andhra Pradesh that the man giving Sonia Gandhi a certificate, Reddy, was himself a Christian! I believe that the seat-sharing between the Telugu Desam and the BJP would have won Tirupati for the BJP anyway, but this incident certainly didn't help the Congress.

The point, however, is that the entire controversy was unnecessary from beginning to end. There were many reasons to oppose Sonia Gandhi's ambition to become prime minister, but her religion was not one of them. So why was it necessary to push herself into a situation where religion became the major talking point? Or didn't her advisers know the rules of Tirupati?

Sonia Gandhi has been trying her best to 'conform' to standard Hindu behaviour ever since she became an active politician. She is never seen in anything but a sari. She made it a point to worship at Prayag during the Maha Kumbh (in a blaze of publicity!) She makes certain that her visits to the shankaracharyas catch the voters' eye. And so, to a very large extent, she has succeeded in ensuring that the average voter doesn't really think of her as a Christian any longer. And now, here she comes again pushing the issue to the forefront...

I refer to the controversy being raised by the Congress over supporting P C Alexander should he become a candidate for Rashtrapati Bhawan. Several senior Congressmen are insistent that this is a diabolical plan hatched by the BJP. The theory goes that Indians won't stand for both the President and the prime minister being from the same minority community.

I have to wonder what on earth the Congress chief's advisers were thinking of when they came up with this theory. Everybody, and that explicitly includes the lady herself, agrees that it is in her best interest to play down the fact that she is a Christian in an overwhelmingly Hindu nation. So why on earth are Congressmen screaming precisely that fact when they choose to oppose Alexander's candidature?

With one stroke, they have succeeded in undoing all the work that Sonia Gandhi put in when she bathed in the Sangam and parlayed with Hindu monks. Her own party workers are now implicitly suggesting that Christians are somehow a breed standing apart from the average Indian.

The second part of their anti-Alexander campaign is, if possible, even worse than the first. Congressmen are now speaking of backing the current President, K R Narayanan, for a second term. Why so? Because, or so goes the Congress calculation, it will be tough for the National Democratic Alliance to vote against a dalit.

I cannot help recalling the day when the late G M C Balayogi was elected the speaker of the twelfth Lok Sabha. One orator after another made much of the fact that this was a historic day because a dalit had become the presiding officer. Finally, P A Sangma, who had been the speaker of the previous House, couldn't take it any longer. "Dalits don't need any favours from you," he told the House. "Please don't insult them by making it seem as if Shri Balayogi has been elected simply because he is a dalit."

It is a point that needs to be stressed again. There may be excellent reasons to give President Narayanan a second term (an honour hitherto reserved only for Dr Rajendra Prasad). But the fact that he is a dalit is neither here nor there.

The Constitution of India states that it is every citizen's obligation to fight discrimination in the name of caste and creed. Congressmen and Leftists routinely accuse the BJP of having a "communal mindset" which runs against this principle. Yet there is nobody who is so conscious of these differences as the average Congressman or Communist.

The controversy over Alexander gives the game away. Why do you oppose him? Because he is a Christian. Why do you support K R Narayanan? Because he is a dalit.

Why can't the Congress and the Left debate the merits of each man? Why must they diminish both men by sticking them into racist stereotypes?

It is no secret that President Narayanan holds true to the doctrine of Nehruvian socialism, and is uncomfortable with the rigours of liberalisation. That probably makes him more palatable to the Left and old-timers in the Congress. But why can't they have the honesty to say so? An open debate on contrasting principles is one thing; shopworn calculations based on caste and creed are precisely what India does not require. Any more, I might add, than does Sonia Gandhi...

One last point: don't insult the Indian voter by accusing him of harbouring the same prejudices as you!

T V R Shenoy

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