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A Lesson to Arnold from Sonia

July 2004
A Lesson to Arnold from Sonia

By Siddharth Srivastava

The other day watching Maria Shriver, wife of Austria-born California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on television, seemed like any other Indian talk show on the subject of Congress president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. Except that Shriver was on Jay Leno. Shriver took up her husband's case and said she would like to see him as President in the 2009 elections. Supporting a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow people born outside the U.S. to run for president, Shriver said, "We are a nation of immigrants. That's how we started. If people come here and live 20 years, work for this country, believe they can change it, I don't think we are in any position to say, ?No, you are not capable to run.' "

Shriver was joining forces with Schwazenegger's earlier pitch for a change in U.S. law so that he could be eligible for the first citizenship of the country. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch proposed a constitutional amendment last year, seeking to allow anyone who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years and has resided in the country for 14 years, to be elected President. The U.S. Constitution says only natural-born citizens of the U.S. are eligible to be President, unlike in India where a foreign born naturalized citizen is eligible even for the topmost post, that of the Prime Minister.

It is noteworthy that India's new Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was born in Pakistan, then part of undivided India, which would make him ineligible for such a post in the USA.

Shriver's arguments on television were conclusive and one couldn't help think that such a law should be redundant in a country where the majority origins lie elsewhere. However, it is still a tricky issue and before plunging into a movement centered round Arnold, it may be instructive for Shriver and others to study the Sonia case.

Indeed, the premier's post was for Sonia's taking with the Congress-led alliance emerging as the winner in the recent elections. It was clear that her origins did not matter to the voters. But she refused, influenced in no small degree by the divisive and vituperative forces that were threatening to unleash in the wake of her accepting the post. This is not to say that the reactions to Arnold in the U.S. will be similar to the way they have been to Sonia in India, yet Indian and American democracies are similar to the extent that when the build-up to any elections happen, the attacks only get more personal.

The issue of Sonia's foreign origin has been fought at two levels?the emotional and the technical. The techno-legal side has seen advocates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking a constitutional amendment to bar people of foreign origin holding high office in the country. Arnold's battle begins here, as he is ineligible to even stand for elections to gauge the response of the American voters. Sonia did not face any such problems and she effortlessly campaigned as well as won her seat from Rae Bareilli in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP, which till recently led a coalition government at the center, did not have the requisite numbers and support in Parliament to pass a legislation to bar her from contesting or leading the Congress. Which, however, does not prevent the BJP from mooting such a move in the future, should they win a majority in Parliament.

Given the inability to make any substantial progress on the legal front the attacks took on a much more personalized nature to appeal to baser emotional instincts. Chief minister of Gujarat Narender Modi, a hardline BJP leader, called Sonia a `jersey cow' and her son Rahul a `hybrid calf.' Another BJP leader Sushma Swaraj threatened to tonsure her head if Sonia became prime minister. Others talked of India's security being at risk; it was a shame that a country with over a billion people had to be ruled by an Italian; there were aspersions of money being embezzled to Italy in the Bofors gun case. The counter-attack by the Congress was equally vociferous. Sonia was married to an Indian and hence deserved the status of a bahu (daughter-in-law) who by virtue of being the wife of the eldest son of Indira Gandhi was the rightful heir to her family's legacy, her supporters argued. Arnold too is married into the first political family of USA, the Kennedy's.

In the end, the people in India have spoken. By all indications, including opinion polls, it does seem that Sonia's origin did not play any role in the elections. On the other hand it seems to have boomeranged on the BJP that ended up giving more attention to Sonia than she deserved, thus enhancing her status as a person who was valiantly fighting a losing battle against the giant persona of Vajpayee. Indians always like to side with the underdog, and they did this time too.

Sonia did not become prime minister, but she has had the last laugh. She is the power behind the throne as she has won the people's mandate. World leaders, including Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, Collin Powell, French premier Jacques Chirac and Russian president Vladimir Putin have chosen to speak to her as well as Singh. Earlier this week, the Delhi High Court ordered the police to probe the allegation that Sushma Swaraj had opposed Congress president Sonia's possible elevation as prime minister since she is of foreign origin. The court directed the police to register a case of "promoting enmity between classes" against Swaraj for violating provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

It has not been an easy ride for Sonia till now. It will require Arnold to be more than just a Terminator to tackle the guns trained at him as he embarks on the arduous route to be President of USA. It is difficult to gauge from India the kind of diatribes the Democrats are likely to raise, but they sure will. And, unlike Sonia, he may never even get a shot at the top job.

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