The question of identity and belonging is always a dicey business. Ms Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, has reiterated her Indianness in the strongest possible terms. She no longer thinks of herself as an Italian. But her opponents and critics cannot forget, and will not let her forget, that her origins lie in Italy and that no amount of protestations by her and on her behalf can negate this fact. Her rivals take the argument a step further by asserting that this incontrovertible fact alone nullifies her claims to be the prime minister of India. This has been the refrain of Mr Sharad Pawar, who left the Congress on this issue to form the Nationalist Congress Party, which is an ally of the Congress in Maharashtra. This alliance has not stopped Mr Pawar from rekindling this issue at a time when crucial assembly elections are a little more than a month away and general elections are looming in the horizon. It has not taken long for the Bharatiya Janata Party to pick up the refrain and make it their principal weapon against the Congress and its president. This has provoked Ms Sonia Gandhi to answer her critics and to assert that as daughter-in-law, mother and widow she has upheld the traditions of India because she sees herself completely as an Indian. There is a certain irony and something shameful in the fact that Ms Sonia Gandhi has to stand up and make these claims to defend her sense of belonging and her identity. She is, after all, the leader of the Congress which rules in 16 states. This implies that the people of those 16 states have accepted her as their leader. It goes without saying that in a democracy the people decide who is good enough to be their leader.
The obsession with Ms Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins points to a number of things about the BJP and others who raise the same bogey. First, they consider Ms Sonia Gandhi to be a genuine threat. This perception is partly determined by the growing strength of the Congress and also by the fact that Ms Sonia Gandhi is seen as the mantle-bearer of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Second, they have nothing of substance to say against her; so they fall back again and again on her Italian origins. Third, but most important, the foreign-origin question is a sign of the utter vacuity of ideas in Indian politics. No politician is willing to discuss ideology and policies — hence, the descent into the banal and the tasteless.