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Our double standards?



Sonia Gandhi ... come election time and the "foreign origin" issue resurfaces.

DR. Kartar Lalvani isn't a name you would recognise, but in the United Kingdom's list of high achievers, he is right up there near the top. The year 2003 saw him get four major awards, including the Who's Who Asian of the Year and the Queen's award for entrepreneurship.

Other British Indians (or plain Indians) have become prominent names in many fields of British life: Lord Navneet Dholakia is Chairman of the Liberal Democratic party (the U.K.'s third largest political group); Amartya Sen won the Economics Nobel and headed an Oxbridge college; Lakshmi Mittal and Swraj Paul are in the forefront of British industry; Gulam Noons and the Pathak family's fast food packaged and food empires have made them rather prominent and rather rich; Salman Rushdie has been at the head of an Indian literary invasion, Nasser Husain has been captain of the English cricket team; Nitin Sawney is prominent in music circles and Anish Kapoor is considered to be England's best contemporary artist.

This is but a small portion of the list; a full cataloguing will take pages to complete. And you could unfurl an even bigger roll call of honour if you look at Indians who have done well in the United States, starting from Bobby Jindal who narrowly lost the election for Governor of a state or Fareed Zakaria who is editor of Newsweek International and is talked about as a future Secretary of State or Satveer Chaudhury who has become the Senator from Minnesota or the late astronaut Kalpana Chawla or novelist Jhumpa Lahiri or the very large number of techies and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.

The presence (and success) of the Indian diaspora doesn't, of course, start and end with these countries as the recent NRI conference in Delhi showed. Present at the second Pravasi Bharatiya Divas were luminaries of Indian origin from countries as diverse as Guyana (President Bharat Jadeo), Mauritius (Deputy Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth), Trinidad and Tobago (former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday), Malaysia (Minister of Works Dato Seri Sami Velu) and New Zealand (Mayor of Dunedin Sukhi Turner).

It's an impressive list and one which makes all of us justifiably proud. We feel good too when a V.S. Naipaul wins the Nobel Prize for literature even though his Indian family settled in Trinidad generations ago or when scientists and mathematicians win major prizes or are appointed to prominent positions. In short, we are more than happy when Persons of Indian (POI) origin shine brightly in other firmaments and point to them as examples of how brilliant we are and how new — and sometimes hostile — environments bring out the best in us.

But we forget to notice a very important aspect of this PIO ascendancy: Indians have done outstandingly well abroad, yes. But they have done outstandingly well because their adopted countries have allowed them to. (Remember when Mahindra Choudhuri was ousted from the Prime Ministership of Fiji by an "ethnic" coup? We felt outrage and the nation reacted strongly).

So, then, what about Sonia Gandhi? The debate about Ms Gandhi's foreign origins, revived by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) think tank and knee-jerk politicians like P.A. Sangma, completely disregards this very important fact of life. On one hand, we want other countries to keep open their doors for Indians but, on the other, we want to close our doors to foreigners. These double standards won't pass any test anywhere for fairness and equity.

The debate about Sonia Gandhi's suitability for the Prime Minister's job should concentrate on her merits, qualifications and experience. The BJP has plenty of ammunition there, and it's fair ammunition. Especially at election time. But the fact that she is of Italian origin should be neither here nor there. Almost all countries (bar the U.S.) have no laws barring people of foreign origin from occupying the highest political office in the land. And even the United States has no bar on them getting into cabinet positions (Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State). They do require that the person should be a citizen and Sonia Gandhi certainly is that.

Xenophobia seems to be rearing its ugly head in other areas of our national life as well. Read about what is now happening in Goa.

Goa, even more than Mumbai, is India's cosmopolitanism at its best: Portuguese and Indian cultures happily co-exist, as do church and temple. Foreigners come in droves: Germans and Russians on the chartered planes of package tours, the rich and famous from all over, looking for sun, sand and exotica, the flower children (when the world had flower children) setting up small businesses or negotiating informal trading/barter deals. They have all become part of Goa's scenery, and — though heaven knows small minds don't know it — an integral part of its economy.

Yet on Christmas Eve, a mob of 150 people, escorted by two policemen (for the mob's protection!) went to the Anjuna-Chapora beach belt to ask certain restaurants and shops to close down. Why? Because their owners were of foreign origin. No matter that the "foreigners" were people like Camps Lisa who is of American origin but holds an Indian passport and has lived in Goa for 23 years. She runs a restaurant with all the legal papers required. Her neighbour is of Italian origin but of Indian citizenship who runs a pizza parlour. There is an Israeli neighbour, also running a restaurant, also with the requisite permissions.

This agitation, no doubt initiated by other restaurant/shop owners, had the blessings of local politicians. The CM of Goa, the BJP's Manohar Parrikar, it is said, also shares this narrow view.

Obviously, local resentments of "foreigners" will continue. This is, and will be so all over the world. The important question is whether these resentments will be allowed to grow or kept down to the manageable small level.

If they grow, we should be ready for repercussions from all over the world: one nation's nationalism is another's xenophobia. If we shut doors, we will have doors shut in our face as well. And, then, all our brilliant POIs and NRI will no longer make news.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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