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By raking up issue of Rahul Gandhi's citizenship, BJP wants to hobble Opposition in the middle of elections

The Union home ministry's notice to Congress president Rahul Gandhi for a clarification on the 'factual position' on his citizenship status is an outrageous and egregious example of the use of government machinery by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to hobble the Opposition.

There can obviously be little doubt that Rahul is an Indian citizen: He has been a Member of Parliament for 15 years. It would be more than a little surprising if he had been allowed to contest elections to the Lok Sabha thrice if there was some doubt about whether he was a British or Indian citizen. The Supreme Court, moreover, dismissed a petition questioning Rahul's citizenship four years ago.

The query has been despatched in response to a complaint filed by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy in 2017. We shall get back to this point later. For the moment, let us note that the parliamentary ethics committee headed by BJP leader LK Advani had looked into Swamy's complaint. Rahul had clarified that he had never sought or acquired British citizenship. The committee seemed satisfied with this response, because it did not pursue the matter any further.

The entire episode would have been absurd had it not been sinister, although Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh tried to play down the significance of the notice. These proceedings were normal, he would have us believe and not a big development. Normal? In the middle of a Lok Sabha election?

 By raking up issue of Rahul Gandhis citizenship, BJP wants to hobble Opposition in the middle of elections

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Twitter @INCIndia

Let us take note of the facts. Swamy filed his complaint in 2017. He alleged that Rahul's nationality was registered as British in the annual returns of a firm registered in the United Kingdom. When the allegations had first been made, the Congress had made public the firm's certificate of incorporation, which registered Rahul's nationality as Indian. Swamy’s complaint was made on the basis of an entry made while filing annual tax returns. It was clarified that the British reference was an inadvertent error. In any case, as mentioned earlier, Parliament and the Supreme Court have settled the matter.

The question, then, is why has the notice been issued now, even though the complaint was filed two years ago? The answer seems to be clear from the salvos the BJP has fired. The party is asking "Which Rahul is original, Rahul of London or Rahul of Lutyens?" Clearly, the home ministry has put in a command performance for the benefit of the ruling party.

The BJP's calculation is that the home ministry query will cast doubts on Rahul's fitness to govern. The message to the electorate is that since the Congress president is not even an Indian citizen, he cannot be trusted to run the country. The further probable calculation is that a lot of people will not look into the matter too closely and will not, therefore, know that Parliament and the Supreme Court have closed the issue.

Does the electorate lack discernment at this level? It does not seem likely. Most people will wonder how a British citizen has been elected to the Lok Sabha thrice. A lot of voters will suspect that the law does not allow a person who is not an Indian citizen to be in Parliament. Perhaps, the calculation is that if you sling mud, some of it will stick. Not everyone is Teflon-coated like the prime minister.

Elections in India, or elsewhere for that matter, are not played by any version of the rules framed by the Marquess of Queensbury. In the rough and tumble of electoral politics, a lot of pretty questionable practices pass muster. Over the decades, the business of electoral politics has grown rougher and much less regulated, despite the Model Code of Conduct and the 'strictures' of the Election Commission. This is apparent, for instance, in the steady deterioration of the language and rhetoric used in electoral politics. Defaming people and entire communities is par for the course. And what's more, most people have come to accept it as being part of the game.

Nevertheless, there must be some rules. The misuse of government machinery to cast aspersions of the kind that have been cast would seem to be off-limits. Such a proceeding has not occurred in electoral politics before. Indira Gandhi's election was scratched for the misuse of government resources in 1975. Unfortunately, the current dispensation does not seem to believe that anything is sacrosanct. Since it has spent five years destabilising and subverting practically every democratic institution in the country, we can hardly now expect it to start respecting norms and conventions.

But what does this particular move tell us about the thinking of the BJP leadership at this point in time? It does suggest that it is rattled. A significant part of the battle for the heartland will be fought over the last three phases of the elections. And it is in this battle that the BJP possibly fears being bested. That could explain why the ruling party is pulling out all the dirty tricks it can out of its political arsenal.

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Updated Date: May 01, 2019 14:37:56 IST