December 15, 2019
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Phoren No More?

Sonia Gandhi's origin was the most controversial issue before the statute review panel. Has it petered out now?

Phoren No More?
illustration by Jayachandran
Phoren No More?
The whole affair of the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution has not quite turned out as expected, or even as was alleged. The overwhelming view had been that the review committee under the Commission was set up primarily to recommend amendments to ensure that Indian citizens of foreign origin—read Sonia Gandhi—could not hold the highest offices in the land. But contrary to all apprehensions, the committee dropped a bombshell last fortnight: it 'deferred' the whole issue.

Not that the foreigner issue is being pursued by political parties as vigorously as it was in the last elections. Virtually everyone who cried foul last time around over the prospect of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister seems to have lost interest along the way. This includes the parties which were vociferously opposing Sonia on this count—the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and the bjp. The ncp, in fact, had come into being as a splinter from the Congress on this one issue.

Just how much the question has disappeared from the political radars is apparent in the fate of two bills seeking to debar foreigners from holding high offices. First, bjp member Kirit Somaiya had moved a Constitution amendment bill in the Lok Sabha in December 1999, which sought "to make only natural born citizens of India eligible for the post of President, Vice-President and Prime Minister."

Now the bill—a private member affair—lies amidst the several hundred other bills, likely to lapse or not be taken up at all for discussion. In fact, if the bill is not taken up in this Lok Sabha, it lapses. And the MP concerned doesn't seem unduly bothered. Says Somaiya: "Yes, the bill is lying there. If it comes up for discussion, we will follow it up." The same is the fate of the other private members' bill on the issue in the Rajya Sabha, moved by Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh in July 2000. Rajya Sabha sources confirm that this bill too is gathering dust and is unlikely to be taken up any time soon. "Maybe it will lapse like what has happened to several other private members' bills," confides a Rajya Sabha member. He went on to add that the seriousness of the issue is best reflected in the fact that both the bills were introduced as private members' bills, which "lack the same sanctity" of a regular motion moved in Parliament. Incidentally, the most celebrated private member's bill is the one on Shah Bano in the mid-eighties, which literally rocked the country.

This apparent lack of interest on a matter that practically propelled the Vajpayee government into power has taken more than a few people by surprise. More importantly, it has also led to questions on whether the bjp-led government has conceded defeat on the issue. bjp Rajya Sabha MP K.R. Malkani refutes this scenario: "There is no question of that. Sonia was perceived as a no-threat during the elections. Now, even more so." On the review committee's position on the issue, Malkani says: "Maybe it (the committee) is afraid of controversies, maybe they want to give it a quiet burial, who knows?"

The crucial recommendation of the committee pertains to Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution which promises equality before law and specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of "religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth". Now the review committee seeks to enlarge Articles 14 and 15 to include "ethnic or social origin, colour, age, language, political or other opinion, property and birth".That in itself is being seen in political and judicial circles as a blow to those seeking to reserve public offices only for naturally born Indian citizens.

But has the question of Congress president Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins receded into the background forever? Nationalist Congress Party MP Purno Sangma, one of the main protagonists of the anti-Sonia plank, had presented a detailed paper on the subject before the Constitution review committee. The operative portion reads: " is incredible that in our country of a billion population with a democracy of a vintage of over half-a-century and after a long spell of foreign rule before becoming independent, there is scope for persons of foreign origin accessing a high constitutional position". He went on to state that "in the present times of globalisation and a sea-change in international politics with strong implications for national autonomy, defence and security, prudence would demand exclusion of persons of foreign origin."

Under the circumstances, is Sangma disappointed or even isolated? The former Lok Sabha speaker told Outlook: "I don't care if I am the only one left campaigning on this issue. I am determined to follow this course and there is nothing that is going to stop me." According to Sangma, who of late has been maintaining a very low profile even inside Parliament, media reports suggesting that the review committee has dropped the topic of foreign origins were inaccurate. "I can assure you that the matter has only been deferred after two days of discussions on the subject in the last session. It is going to be taken up in right earnest."

Congress leaders say that Sangma's position is blasphemous. Alleges Rajya Sabha member Eduardo Faleiro: "Sangma himself is from the Northeast, and does not belong to the so-called heartland mainstream. It is remarkable that he should take this position. His move smacks of an attempt to create two categories of citizens. The majority of Indians are not bothered, these slogans are only mouthed by Hindutva ideologues. This is also a small step towards religious discrimination. Maybe Sangma wants to join the bjp."

Ironically, the committee apparently feels slighted at the Congress position on the foreigners issue. "No one from the Congress has bothered to put up its views, considering that the party president is in the line of fire. After Narasimha Rao gave his version before the committee, no one has come forward so far. Maybe they are under instructions not to do so," says a source. He adds, however, that there was "nothing controversial" in what Rao had said to the committee.

According to well-placed sources, there was never any question of the panelists following a particular political line. "With people like Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah at the helm, the proposals will naturally be independent and care will be taken to ensure that the basic tenets of the Constitution remain unaltered," an official connected to the committee said.

When the nda government had set up the Venkatachaliah Commission, the Opposition charge was that it was to 'saffronise' the Constitution. Now it appears the review committee's conclusions could be quite to the contrary. The papers presented for public discussion speak for themselves. The most significant one deals with the 'enlargement of fundamental rights' or expansion of rights such as they exist now.

Another major recommendation: codify as fundamental rights certain freedoms which the Supreme Court already recognises.These include the right to freedom of the press, freedom of information, right to privacy, right to free elementary education up to 14 years, right to clean and healthy environment, right to legal aid and access to courts and the right of compensation against a callous or brutal state authority. By recommending codification, the committee proposes to further sharpen the existing provisions in the Constitution—something that the core saffron brigade may not be very pleased with.

But it is the Sonia Gandhi factor that is of immediate significance. Politically speaking, the point now is whether the foreigner issue has lost its relevance in the long term. Or is it simply that Sonia Gandhi is no longer considered a serious enough threat? Maybe the nda government, caught up as it is in a series of scams, has just forgotten about it? It may well take an election to reveal if the topic still holds the fancy of the political class.

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