NCP supremo and Maratha Stalwart Sharad Pawar, who was shown the door by Congress for raising the matter of party chief Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins, in 1999, says the issue had “reached far and deep” at that time. Recalling his ouster from the party , Pawar blamed the late senior Congress leader Arjun Singh for “orchestrating” his expulsion along with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar. The trio then went to form the Nationalist Congress Party.
Ironically, Pawar, despite breaking away from the Congress, was one of the most valuable allies of the Congress and a senior cabinet minister in the UPA- 1 and UPA- 2, led by Congress, under Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. In the years to follow, the NCP formed a government in Maharashtra with the Congress and were in power in the financial capital of the country, for 15 years .
The issue of foreign origin of Congress president Sonia Gandhi , the Maratha strongman Pawar says, in his book ‘On My Terms-From the Grassroot to the Corridors of Power’, came to his mind at a function in Mumbai, when a university student had asked him “in a country of 1 billion people, why can’t the Congress find a leader of Indian origin?”
“The fact that the question was posed by a member of the younger generation indicated that issue had reached far and deep. This means the foreign origin issue (of Sonia Gandhi) would take centre stage during the election,” the NCP chief says in the book.
The function in Mumbai, reminsces Pawar, took “some days” prior to the May 15, 1999 meeting of Congress Working Committee called by Sonia, in Delhi, where, “for no apparent reason’ the Congress President herself raised the subject of her foreign origin and asked party members to voice their opinion on the issue ‘candidly’. Pawar says that Sonia pulled out a sheet of paper and read out aloud, “I was born outside India. If this becomes an issue in the campaign, how would it impact our party’s performance in the election?”
“Since Sonia Gandhi had initiated the discussion on the issue, she was expected to respond to the points raised by her members. However, for the reasons best known to her she chose to remain silent. The CWC meeting ended on that uneasy note.”
Pawar says, Sangma, Anwar, and him, also drafted a four-page letter and proposed an amendment in the constitution so that offices of the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister could only be held by natural-born Indian citizens. “Our move was in sharp contrast to the mass show of loyalty, which was on full display outside. Soon after our letter was received, the CWC met again to suspend us for six years. Even while a hysterical exhibition of loyalty and support to 10 Janpath continued for a full one week, a meeting of the AICC was called at Talkatora Stadium on May 25. It dutifully endorsed our suspension.”
“We came to know later that it was all pre-planned. Arjun Singh had orchestrated the entire episode,” Pawar says in the book. The Maratha strongman said it was Sangma, who had first raised the objection to the ‘foreign origin’ issue, which was “unexpected for many as he was believed to be very close to Sonia Gandhi.
“Arjun Singh was first to speak. ‘You may be foreigner by first but you became a domicile of the country after marriage. You did not leave the country even after your husband and mother-in-law was assassinated. Just as you embraced this country, the people of India also have accepted you as one of them. For them, you are the rashtra maataa. You alone deserve to lead the nation and the party’. Arjun Singh more or less set the tone of the speeches that followed. AK Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni were all one to express their loyalty,” says Pawar in his book.
Quoting Sangma, Pawar goes on to say, “There is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi foreign origin will be made a big issue in the election. It will be foolish on our part to say there will no impact if we are criticised for choosing a foreigner to lead us when the party has so many able people. We shall have to devise a strategy to counter that criticism.”
“The entire CWC listened to him in rapt attention. A senior member tried to interject but Sangma silenced him immediately by retorting that it will be in everybody’s interest if he was allowed to speak without any interruption. When Tariq Anwar’s turn came he concurred with Sangma,” Pawar says.