July 24: A Telangana BJP leader’s description of Sania Mirza as “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” to pan her appointment as the state’s brand ambassador drew wide condemnation today and a rejoinder from the tennis player, who stressed her Indian identity.
But behind the expected furore over “polarising” politics, there also emerged a parallel narrative of local aspirations identifying more with a tribal girl who created Everest history in May than with the urbane and English-speaking Sania.
K. Laxman, BJP floor leader in the Assembly, had branded Sania a “non-local” too and asked why she was paid Rs 1 crore when the government gave just Rs 25 lakh to Malavath Purna, the youngest girl to scale Everest at 13.
Sania, an Indian citizen who represents the country but is married to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, answered she would remain an Indian till the “end of my life”.
A statement by the 27-year-old also stressed that her family had belonged to Hyderabad, now Telangana’s capital, “for more than a century and I strongly condemn any attempts by any person whosoever to brand me an outsider”.
Laxman’s comments shook the central BJP, coming a day after the outcry over an MP from ally Shiv Sena stuffing a chapatti into a fasting Muslim’s mouth and a BJP Lok Sabha member warning Opposition MPs: “This is Hindustan, not Pakistan.”
As the Congress and others rained condemnation on Laxman, Union minister Prakash Javadekar rushed to disown Laxman’s views and describe Sania as the “pride of India” and brand ambassador for the entire nation.
Spokesperson Nalin Kohli asserted “an Indian’s right to choose her life partner” and even the conservative Murli Manohar Joshi questioned the “culture” that prompted Laxman’s remarks.
But the Congress too was squirming in its own embarrassment: its Telangana unit appeared to be on the same wavelength as Laxman.
“Sania doesn’t fit into the brand image of Hyderabad and Telangana,” said state Congress chief Ponnala Lakshmaiah, a former sports minister who had rebuffed the player’s request for free land for her tennis academy.
V. Hanumantha Rao, the high-profile Congress MP, went a step further: “We oppose Sania being made the Telangana brand ambassador. She hasn’t done anything for the Telangana state. She married a Pakistani national — someone else should be made the brand ambassador.”
It was left to spokesperson Rajeev Gowda to officially “dissociate” the Congress from these remarks. Political observers in Andhra and Telangana offered multiple reasons for this mismatch between the local and central views in both parties.
One, the local BJP had in the past publicly questioned Sania’s lifestyle, accusing her of dressing inappropriately when she attended a festival as a guest. In 2005, some BJP leaders had backed a Muslim scholar’s fatwa against Sania’s skirt hemlines, shorts and sleeveless tops.
Two, the embattled state Congress was keen to woo back former ally Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen — whose key constituency of conservative Muslims makes it allergic to Sania — from the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s fold.
But a BJP parliamentarian from Andhra claimed that the virulence of the “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” tag notwithstanding, a more grassroots issue was at stake.
To him, the party “liberals” in Delhi who “pander to a fashionable audience” are “unappreciative of the deeper political impulses working in the state”.
The “natural choice” for a brand ambassador should have been Purna, a student of the state government’s social welfare residential school, the MP said.
“There’s elitism at work here. Purna is not glamorous or English-speaking,” he said. Senior politicians from the Telugu Desam Party endorsed his view.
By evening, Laxman was claiming he had no issues with Sania marrying anybody. But, he alleged, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti had picked Sania to garner Muslim votes in the upcoming civic polls.
It was the “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” barb that seemed to have sent a shiver down the central BJP’s spine.
“It’s as though these developments (including the chapatti row) were scripted to fulfil our adversaries’ prophecies on the BJP working on a narrow, communal programme. We can’t live with this sort of thing,” a party source in Delhi said.
Echoing his fellow minister Javadekar, Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted to proclaim Sania a “proud daughter of India” who had brought “great glory to India”.
Party sources let on that minister Arun Jaitley, a known cricket buff, dropped in at Wimbledon only when Sania was playing.
As soon as TV channels began airing Laxman’s comments, sources said, a Union minister called and gagged him. Telangana BJP president G. Kishan Reddy was told to focus only on the accident at the unmanned crossing.
Laxman’s comments came a day after chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao had announced Sania’s new role.
“Sania was born in Maharashtra and settled in Hyderabad only later. So, she is a non-local,” Laxman said.
He stressed that Sania had never participated in the statehood agitation. “How did Rao grant her Rs 1 crore, a gesture he did not show even to the (statehood) martyrs’ families?”
Sania’s statement said she was born in Mumbai as her mother needed to be at a speciality hospital because of serious illness.
“I came home to Hyderabad when I was three weeks old,” she said. “It hurts me that so much precious time of prominent politicians and the media is being wasted on a petty issue.”
State brand ambassadors are not always of local origin, anyway — BJP-ruled Gujarat had picked Amitabh Bachchan, who hails from Uttar Pradesh.
Sania’s statement laid out her family’s long connection with Hyderabad.
“My grandfather, Mr Mohammed Zaffer Mirza, started his career as an engineer in (the) Nizam’s railways in Hyderabad in 1948 and died in his ancestral home in Hyderabad,” she said.
She added that her great-grandfather, Mohd Ahmed Mirza, too was born and raised in Hyderabad. He was the chief engineer, water works, and helped build the Gandipet Dam.
“My great-great-grandfather, Mr Aziz Mirza, was the home secretary under the Nizam in Hyderabad and worked tirelessly for relief works during the Musi river floods of 1908,” Sania said.
“I am an Indian, who will remain an Indian until the end of my life.”