By Sandhya Jain
New Delhi is agog with the probable political fallout of a possible decision by the Election Commission, nullifying Sonia Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareilly in 2004. In a move reminiscent of the Allahabad High Court’s decision to set aside the election of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, former Union Minister Subramaniam Swamy has challenged the legality of the Congress Party president’s election and may well succeed in having it declared null and void.
Temperatures have risen with a decision likely soon, as Swamy claims he has an open-and-shut case and will move the courts if he fails to secure a favourable verdict. The unseating of Sonia Gandhi from the Lok Sabha will trigger a turmoil and can reopen the question of whether she qualifies for Indian citizen in the first place. After all, it is as a citizen of India that she contested elections.
Given the gravity of the matter, it may be worth examining some of the issues involved. To begin with, there are disparities between what Sonia Gandhi says about herself and known facts. For instance, the birth certificate sent by the Italian embassy to the Indian Home Ministry in 1983 (when she applied for Indian citizenship) gave her name as Antonia and not Sonia. Her place of birth was listed as Luciana, and not Orbassano, which is listed in the Lok Sabha’s Who’s Who. Sonia Gandhi’s year of birth is given as 1944. Some reports also state that her father, Signor Stefano Maino, was a prisoner-of-war in Russia allegedly from 1942 till Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
The controversy now is about her academic qualifications. It is alleged that while filling her Lok Sabha candidacy form in 2004, she claimed on a sworn affidavit before a magistrate that she had a certificate in English from the University of Cambridge. But the university denied it and Dr Swamy has presented this to the EC. A false declaration is a criminal offence under the IPC. Yet this was not the first controversy on this matter. She made this claim in the 1999-2004 Lok Sabha Who’s Who as well, and claimed it was a “typing mistake” when the Speaker asked her to answer a complaint in this regard.
There is thus a mystery about what Sonia Gandhi did in London between 1963 and 1968.
This brings us to the question of Gandhi’s citizenship under the registration clause of the Citizenship Act of 1955. Such citizenship is in principle revocable by law. And this makes her credentials to be Prime Minister tenuous and fragile. Indeed, this was precisely as recounted in some quarters then that President Abdul Kalam rejected her claim, though denied later. Media reports, then said the Congress president wrote to the President staking claim to form the Government and received an appointment for 5 pm on May 17, when she expected to receive a formal invitation. A list of 340 MPs proposing her name accompanied her letter.
But a few hours before this, Dr. Subramaniam Swamy called on the President and acquainted him with the reciprocity proviso in the Citizenship Act, which debars Sonia Gandhi from becoming Prime Minister unless a naturalized India-born citizen of Italy is qualified to hold similar office in that country. Dr. Kalam then reportedly sent her a letter at 3.30 pm asking her to cancel the 5 pm appointment and come on 18 May to discuss government formation. Though the letter was kept secret, its contents can be inferred from the fact that Sonia Gandhi suddenly renounced her desire to become PM and appointed Dr. Manmohan Singh to the post.
There are other reasons why many Indians have reservations about Sonia Gandhi’s high eminence in the political arena. The most obvious is that though she married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 and qualified for Indian citizenship in 1973, she only sought and accepted Indian citizenship on April 30, 1983, when it was clear that her husband was heir-designate of his mother. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister immediately thereafter.
Yet doubts persist about the legality of the Indian citizenship. Sonia claims she gave her Italian passport to the Indian government while taking Indian citizenship, but refuses to say if she surrendered her Italian passport to the Italian government. Under Roman law, both she and her descendants can eternally claim Italian citizenship, hence the question arises whether she has legally renounced her Italian citizenship for herself and her children?