On 15 May 1999, the Congress president called a meeting of the Congress Working Committee. For no apparent reason, she suddenly pulled out a sheet of paper and read aloud: ‘I was born outside India. If this becomes an issue in the campaign, how would it impact our party’s performance in the election?’ She requested CWC members to voice their opinions candidly. Arjun Singh was the first to speak. ‘You may be a foreigner by birth but you became a domicile of this country after marriage. You did not leave even after your husband and mother-in-law were assassinated. Just as you embraced this country, the people of India also have accepted you as one of them. For them, you are the ‘Rashtra maataa’ (the mother of the nation). You alone deserve to lead the nation and the party.’ Arjun Singh more or less set the tone of the speeches that followed. AK Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni went all out to express their loyalty.
Then came the turn of PA Sangma. He was believed to be very close to Sonia Gandhi. So what he said was totally unexpected for many. There is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin will be made a big issue in the election. It will be foolish on our part to say there will be no impact if we are criticised for choosing a foreigner to lead us when the party has so many able people. We shall have to devise a strategy to counter that criticism.’
The entire CWC listened to him in rapt attention. A senior member tried to interject but Sangma silenced him immediately by retorting that it would be in everybody’s interest if he was allowed to speak without any interruption. When Tariq Anwar’s turn came, he concurred with Sangma. After a few others spoke, it was my turn. I said, "The people of India will not forget that the Gandhi family has contributed a lot to this country. Secondly, a large number of people in the country support the Congress because they acknowledge with gratitude the supreme sacrifices made by Indiraji and Rajiv Gandhi. Therefore we shall be able to counter effectively the opposition parties’ campaign against Soniaji’s foreign origin. In that sense, I agree with what Sangma said. We must meet the opposition campaign head on. But it will be our gross mistake to presume that the opposition will not campaign on the 'foreigner' issue."
Then I narrated an incident in support of my contention. Some days earlier, I had attended a function in Mumbai University where a girl student asked me, "In a country of one billion people, why can’t the Congress find a leader of Indian origin?" The fact that the question was posed by a member of the young generation indicated that the issue had already reached far and deep. This meant the ‘foreigner’ issue would take centre stage in the elections. I quoted the incident to underscore the point that the party would have to prepare well to meet this challenge. There was no further debate.
Since Sonia Gandhi had initiated the discussion on the issue, she was expected to respond to the points raised by the members. However, for reasons best known to her, she chose to remain silent. The CWC meeting ended on that uneasy note.
I took the 4 pm flight to Mumbai. Journalists were waiting for me at the airport. They told me that Sonia Gandhi had resigned as Congress president. Demonstrations were going on outside the party headquarters in New Delhi. Many women among those assembled there were wailing. Some members of the crowd were raining abuses on Sangma, Tariq Anwar and me, I was told. When journalists asked me for my reaction, I said it was a sensitive issue and so I would not comment before getting all the information.
With more demonstrations the next day, the situation became tense. The police advised us against going anywhere close to the party office as there was a possibility of a physical assault on us. Sangma, Tariq and I met in Delhi and drafted a four-page letter addressing Sonia Gandhi. Written with restraint, it hinted that the ‘foreigner’ issue would definitely come up in the campaign for which the party would have to pay a heavy political price. In view of this, we urged Sonia Gandhi to take the immediate initiative of proposing an amendment to the Constitution of India so that the offices of the president, vice-president and prime minister could only be held by natural-born Indian citizens.
Our move was in sharp contrast to the mass show of ‘loyalty’ which was on full display outside. Soon after our letter was received, the CWC met again to suspend us from the party for six years. Even while the hysterical exhibition of loyalty and support to 10 Janpath continued for a full week, a meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) was called at Talkatora Stadium on 25th May. It dutifully endorsed our suspension.
We came to know later that it was all pre-planned; Arjun Singh had orchestrated the entire episode.
The Congress party ranks across the country were disturbed by our suspension. The reaction was particularly sharp in Maharashtra. Besides P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, senior leaders including Sanat Mehta (Gujarat) and Sarat Chandra Sinha (Assam) came to Mumbai for deliberations. Congress leaders from the second rung in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, the Northeast, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerela also joined in. Those from Maharashtra included Chhagan Bhujbal and RR Patil.
This is the letter P.A. Sangma, Tariq Anwar and I wrote to Sonia Gandhi after the CWC meeting where the ‘foreigner’ issue came up.
May 15, 1999
Smt Sonia Gandhi
All India Congress Committee
24 Akbar Road
Respected Congress President,
It is with a deep sense of responsibility and an overwhelming sense of concern that we write to you. The founders and leaders of the Congress party like your eminent grandfather-in-law had always encouraged a tradition of free and uninhibited exchange of views amongst Congressmen. They have built the foundation of Indian democracy on the four pillars of liberty of opinion, freedom of expression, responsibility of action and above all nation before self. We believe we are being true to these ideas in placing our views before you.
Madam President, we belong to a generation which had the good fortune to have, as role models, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Pt. Nehru, Maulana Azad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. It is under their tutelage that we learnt about the value of sacrifice, and the intensity of national pride. They taught us to be Indians first and Congressmen next. Your family has, more than once, made the supreme sacrifice to uphold these ideals.
After the demise of Rajivji the party felt orphaned. Like most orphans, its condition deteriorated. With the slow decline of the Congress party, the forces of communalism, violence and fundamentalism, which would divide and break the country, grew from strength to strength. As a result the country plunged from crises to crises. The last three years have seen more political, social and economic turbulence in this country than the previous 45.
Right thinking people were leaving the Congress. The poor, the underprivileged, the minorities and the youth were disillusioned with the party.
It was at such a bleak time, Madam, that some of us came to you. We had all watched with respect and admiration the great dignity with which you and your children bore the series of blows that life dealt you.
We also sensed the genuine affection and care that you had for Congressmen and the Congress party. At this critical juncture in the party’s life we came to you and requested you to take over the reins of the party. We felt that the real respect the Congress party had for your family would rejuvenate the organisation And we are not wrong. Your presence in the party gave it a new life. The disintegration stopped. Congressmen started returning to the fold.
For the past months, we have observed the maturity and dignity you have brought to the high office of the Congress president. You have kept the fold together, consulted with senior colleagues and motivated the youth. Through all this ran a clear purpose that the party so cherished by your family did not perish. Such selflessness is not new to India, and this ability to put the party’s interest above yourself gave us hope and strength.
With clarity of purpose you concentrated on the party without getting involved in the political battles fought on the ground and on the floor of Parliament. Despite tremendous pressure, you resisted the temptation to fight elections. Both at the AICC session in Delhi and at Panchmarhi, you very rightly reminded us that keeping the party strong and vibrant was as important as running a government. When the fractured outcome of the general elections [was] out, you and the party accepted the verdict of the people of India that the Congress party had not fully lived up to their expectations. Other political parties were given a chance to take this great county forward. At all times you intuitively understood and respected the often unstated wishes of the Indian people.
However, of late we have noticed what we hope is only a temporary aberration. We believe that this is the work of a few self- seeking individuals, we pray that you are able to discharge yourself from such minds.
Soniaji, you have lived as daughter-in-law to India for the past 30 years. You have in your own way absorbed much of this great country’s spirit. You are in the line of many non-Indians who have loved and adopted this country and worked for its benefit. The Congress party which you now lead was the brainchild of a Scotsman, Sir A.O. Hume. The seat you occupy has once adorned Annie Besant. It is in this selfless tradition that we see your services to the party and the nation.
Madam President, India is a country with a history and tradition going back for [thousands] of years. It is a confident culture and a proud nation. Above all it is a country which is self-sufficient in every sense of the word. India has always lived in the spirit of the Mahatma’s words: “Let the winds from all over sweep into my room”, but again he said “I will not be swept off my feet”. We accept with interest and humility the best which we can gather from the North, South, East or West and we absorb them into our soil.
But our inspiration, our soul, our honour, our pride, our dignity, is rooted in our soil. It has to be of this earth.
Soniaji, you have become a part of us because you have all along respected this. We therefore find it strange that you should allow yourself to forget it at this crucial juncture.
It is not possible that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence and ability, can have anyone other than an Indian, born of Indian soil, to head its government.
Some of us have tried to initiate and open broader discussions on this issue within the party. It is an issue which affects not just the security, the economic interest and the international image of India, but hits at the core pride of every Indian. Unfortunately this initiative has been thwarted at every stage.
At the risk of repetition we would like to emphasise that, as Congressmen, we look up to you as a leader who kept the party together and is a source of strength to all of us. We hope that you will continue in this role for many years. But, as a responsible political party, we also have to understand the genuine concern of the average Indian who may or may not be a Congressman. That Indian is concerned about the person who will guide the course of his destiny for at least five years.
India’s prime ministership is probably the single most difficult job in the world today. A country the size of a subcontinent, with a population of 980 million. A vibrant, vocal democracy, a struggling economy, fissiparous forces tearing the social fabric, insurgency and terrorism which cuts at national unity. No government anywhere in the world faces the type of complex problems and multidimensional issues that need attention in India. A person who is to take the reins of this country needs a large measure of experience and understanding of public life. That is why the founders of the party insisted that people who aspired for higher positions should first spend time working their way up. This way the party worker got acquainted with the complexity of issues in the country.
The average Indian is not unreasonable in demanding that his Prime Minister have some track record in public life. The Congress party needs to respect this very justifiable expectation. We need to understand that during an election campaign every Congress worker has to be able to be aggressive about his party’s line. Our workers cannot afford to be either defensive or apologetic. This will negatively affect the party’s performance.
We believe, Madam President, that even now it is not too late. Let this great party once again move forward in the direction of Rajivji’s dream – a strong resurgent India leading the world into the 21st century. Rajivji’s dream was shared by all of us. We look to you to lead the party to fulfil this dream.
We have discussed this matter today in the CWC at great length. We stand by the views we have expressed there. There can be no two opinions that this personalized campaign started by the BJP against you is reprehensible and needs to be opposed strongly. At the same time we would again state that the issue raised by us in today’s meeting is real as far as this country is concerned and cannot be wished away.
We believe that it is our responsibility as Congressmen and political leaders to formally place on record our view and request the CWC and you to consider the following suggestion which we feel would set at rest the controversy currently being debated across the country.
(1) The Congress Manifesto should suggest an amendment to the Constitution of India, to the effect that the offices of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister can only be held by natural born Indian citizens.
We would also request that you, as Congress president, propose this amendment. This will be in line with your own consistent stand that your sole concern in entering public life was to revive and rejuvenate the party for which Panditji, Indraji and Rajivji gave their all. Such a stand will not only further enhance your status but also give strength to the Congress party as it goes to the polls.
We urge you to consider the issues that we have raised in the same spirit and seriousness with which we have raised them. We believe that in the larger interests of the party and the country you would accept the suggestion we have made.
With regards Yours sincerely,
[P.A. Sangma] [Tariq Anwar] [Sharad Pawar]
Excerpted with permission from On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power by Sharad Pawar, Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited.