Saturday, May 1, 1999

Who is an Indian?

My article titled "Who is an Indian?" appeared in the newsletter of Liberty Institute in May 1999.

It is ironic that the Prime Minister has sparked off a “national debate” on whether any foreign-born person should be allowed to hold the highest political offices in the land, because only a few weeks earlier, he had quoted from Tagore in a programme broadcast live on national TV–"milibey aar milabey; jaabey na pheerey... Aiyee bharoter mahamanober sagaro teere"– From these sacred shores of cultural union, India has not sent any one back.

More so since, in the lines preceding those that the Prime Minister quoted, the poet says the Indian civilisation has successfully assimilated the Aryans, the non-Aryans, the Dravidians, the Chinese, the Shakas, the Huns, the Pathans, the Moghuls.

The question of the “foreign born” was settled by the members of the Constituent Assembly after substantive deliberations fifty years ago. It is strange that the question of nationality and citizenship has emerged as the first major issue in the coming elections.

Clearly, bereft of any other achievements, the political gladiators today are once again seeking to raise an issue only to camouflage their own agendas. This debate truly reflects the status of the political leadership in the country today. This country has been ruled by experienced native born leaders for the last 50 years, and the results are for all to see.

Much more importantly, behind this veneer of concern for the future of the country in hands of one “foreign born”, the true sovereign in any democracy–the demos, the voting citizen–is being subjected to an ultimate insult.

What these self-proclaimed champions of national self-respect are saying is that the voters are politically too dumb, emotionally too naive and therefore can be swayed by just one inexperienced foreigner.

Illiterate and undernourished the voter may be, but in political savvy they are second to none. Except for 1984, never have the voters reelected a ruling party or coalition back to power since the general elections of 1971. It is the leadership that has constantly failed to get the message that the electorate has been sending– either deliver or be despatched.

One could oppose the Congress on many counts. It was the socialistic pattern of development that perpetuated our poverty and laid the seeds of corruption by institutionalising controls over the marketplace. In the 1970s it subverted the democratic process itself, and contributed significantly to lumpenisation of politics. Likewise, opposition to Sonia could be faulted for any number reasons–her policies, her actions, her inexperience, her dependence on the coterie, her attempt to sideline mass leaders and undermine second rung leadership and concentrate all powers in her hands, and so on.

The real tragedy of our democracy is that despite an apparently vibrant and diverse polity, vast political spaces have remained unexplored. Congress initiated the steps to economic reforms, even if reluctantly and surreptitiously. Given an opportunity, the non-Congress parties too would walk the road to reform, however slowly, while continuing to talk of a return to the old socialist moorings. Hardly any one realises that the idea of less government, faster reforms, accelerated development is also a politically viable, economically sensible and electorally saleable option. This shows the enormous ideological common ground that exists between political parties, and explains the level of animosity between parties and leaders.

Unable to provide a broad alternative vision, the political actors have to stoop to the lowest levels in order to highlight their differences with the rest. Instead, we are now confronted with this issue of political exclusivity.

Tagore had hoped that we would continue to enrich ourselves by assimilating all in our fold. Today, at the threshold of the next millennium, we are being asked to accept the politics of exclusion and travel down the road to ‘where the world is broken up into narrow domestic walls’. This is not the India the poet dreamt of. It is time we saw through this game of political brinkmanship. Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves that Tagore had ended that stirring poem by inviting all–the Aryans and the non-Aryans, the Hindus and the Muslims, the English and the Christians, the Brahmins and the untouchables–to join hands and together fulfil the promise of this sacred union. Who indeed is a foreigner in a land that has provided a home to all?

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