Foreign devil: Tavleen Singh takes aim at Sonia

"My problem is that as an Indian it offends me to be represented by an Italian woman. It arouses in me the worst kind of chauvinistic nationalism and there are millions of Indians who feel as I do and who believe that if Sonia had even minimum respect (forget love) for India she would not have humiliated us by putting herself forward as prime minister," writes journalist Tavleen Singh in a 2004 column warning of the dangers of allowing a foreigner occupy the highest elected office in the land.

It's a passionate piece of writing that takes a legitimate position. It is not xenophobic to demand that our Prime Minister be an native-born citizen. And there are good, sound arguments for a stipulation that other democratic nations such as the United States include in their Constitution. But in an excerpt from her latest book, Durbar, -- available on the Open Magazine website -- Singh goes one step further. She attempts to recast Sonia's Italian pedigree as an irremediable character flaw, using gossip and hearsay to insinuate that Sonia is not merely a foreigner, but one who loathes the nation she reluctantly adopted as her own.

"[S]he seemed terrified of India in a deep, deep way," she writes of Sonia circa 1970s, a claim illustrated by an overheard party conversation:

It was summer and there must have been a new outbreak of malaria that the ladies were talking about. I heard Sonia say that when her children were babies she was so worried about them being bitten by mosquitoes that she would put anti-mosquito coils under their cradles. She only stopped when the family doctor told her that they were more in danger from the smoke of the repellent than from mosquitoes. None of the ladies found the story funny. None of them had the courage to tell her that when you grow up in India, you learn to live with mosquitoes just as you learn to live with undrinkable water in your taps, filthy streets, flies and an unreliable supply of electricity.

What marks Sonia as foreign, in fact, is her reluctance to intercede, wary perhaps that it would be taken as a typical firang over-reaction. AFP

As damning evidence of foreign-ness, it's fairly weak. Right now, in the midst of a dengue scare, mothers across India, be it maid or memsaab, are lighting coils, buying plug-ins, smearing repellent creams to protect their children. A fear of mosquito bites hardly marks one as an outsider. More amusing is the notion that the women in Sonia's rarefied elite circle would know much about living in an India of filthy streets, flies and no electricity.

Further down the excerpt, Singh offers a second party conversation to label Sonia as clueless foreigner -- now as a politician's spouse who visits remote villages as part of her wifely duty. Both Rajiv and Sonia are shocked by the poverty. "But in the villages it really is something else… beyond anything I had imagined," says Rajiv, while Sonia is "appalled by the filth":

In one hut we saw a small baby crawling around right next to this large pile of cow dung. He was playing with it and putting it in his mouth. It was awful and I wanted to tell his mother to stop him from doing this, but I thought she would mind so I said nothing.

Most of us would be appalled -- and rightly so -- at the sight of a child eating cow dung. What marks Sonia as foreign, in fact, is her reluctance to intercede, wary perhaps that it would be taken as a typical firang over-reaction. More interestingly, in stark contrast to the Gandhi couple's visceral reaction, the presumably Indian socialites are unruffled.

"It’s better not to interfere in local customs," says one. And in response to Rajiv's naive incredulity at the lack of basic medical care and clean drinking water, another responds: "Indians believe in karma, and that makes them believe it is their fate to be poor, that they must have done something bad in their last life to suffer in this one."

It doesn't take a genius to figure out which reaction is more patronising and offensive to the villagers.

In her attempts to expose Sonia's un-Indianness, Singh reveals instead the surreal isolation of the Indian elite. All the criticisms of Sonia -- inability to speak Hindi, penchant for Western attire -- apply just as well to them. While she acknowledges that this upper class Delhi set is "deracinated" and in awe of all things Western, she fails to see that this cultural alienation makes them "as foreign as any foreigner I had ever met" -- a charge she hurls solely at Sonia.

Worse, the foreign-fixation is combined with a searing disdain towards the aam Indian:

It may sound like a funny thing to say, but Sonia’s foreignness made it easier for her to be accepted in Rajiv’s circle of friends. Had he married an Indian woman of her background, she would have been permanently held in contempt by the broken-down aristocrats and aspiring grandees who were Rajiv’s closest friends.

In fact, based solely on Singh's description, it would be easy to argue that a member of this rarefied elite is every bit as ineligible to rule India as, say, an Italian. Singh, however, doesn't think so, as she makes clear in that 2004 polemic: "Personally, I have no objection to Mr [Rahul] Gandhi and Mrs [Priyanka] Vadra. They are Indian and as entitled as any other son or daughter of a politician to inherit Daddy’s jagir."

Unfair privilege is fine as long as it's the old-fashioned Indian variety.

None of this is to say there is anything wrong with being "offended to be represented by an Italian woman." It is entirely legitimate to oppose Sonia's ascension on the grounds of principle: No foreign-born citizen for PM. If so, it then matters little if Sonia is sinner or saint, she is no more be fit to be our leader than, say, Mother Teresa. The Albanian woman who spent most of her life in a white sari, tending to the poorest of the poor. Where Singh runs into trouble is in demonising Sonia's background, more so in the upper class environs of Lutyens Delhi, where it's often hard to tell who is more alien: the native or the firang.

Check out the excerpt in its entirety on the Open website.

Sans Serif has another excerpt which tells the story of how Tavleen Singh fell out of favour with Sonia.

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