Rahul Gandhi, newly elected president of India's main opposition Congress party, kisses the forehead of his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi after taking charge as the president during a ceremony at the party's headquarters in New Delhi, India, December 16, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Altaf Hussain
Rahul Gandhi kisses the forehead of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, after taking charge as president of the Indian National Congress during a ceremony at the party's headquarters in New Delhi on December 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Altaf Hussain

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in May 2014, intolerance toward minorities, Dalits, Muslims, women and immigrants has become rampant.

Since the BJP’s inception in the mid-1980s, ithas been trying to wreck the fabric of India’s secular and diverse society and make it more intolerant.

In so doing, the BJP leaders and supporters are applying a double standard, one set of rules to themselves and another set for others.

December 9 was the birthday of Sonia Gandhi, the current interim chairwoman of the Indian National Congress Party (INC) and the opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. 

Sonia declined to celebrate her 74th birthday officially on Wednesday, in light of a farmers’ movement in India.

Modi congratulated her on Twitter. 

Soon after Modi wished her a happy birthday, one of the BJP’s cyber guerrillas trolled her on Twitter with the hashtag #BarDancerDay. Other BJP supporters trolled her with racial, misogynistic, xenophobic, and personal slanders.

This was not the first time Sonia was trolled by BJP cyber cadets. On April 21, Arnab Goswami launched a tirade against her over the lynching of two Hindu ascetics in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. Goswami accused Sonia of maintaining “silence” on the issue because “she hails from Italy.”

Goswami is the editor and anchor of English-language Republic TV and Hindi-language Republic Bharat and supports the BJP’s Hindutva ideology. He is notorious for the harassment of opposition party leaders and activists who disagree with the BJP government and its ideology.

Simran Verma, a graduate student, wrote in The Wire, “It was not the accusation that became controversial itself, but the way he spoke of her. Throughout his brief but aggressive attack, he continued to blame her, calling her ‘Italy waali Sonia’ [Sonia from Italy] and finally spitting out her maiden name, ‘Antonia Maino,’ as though it burned his tongue.”

She added, “Soon after Goswami’s verbal attack came a nationwide Twitter attack on the Congress president. The next morning, ‘Bar Dancer,’ insinuating that Gandhi was allegedly one before she met Rajiv Gandhi, and ‘RagaKMKB,’ an abbreviation of a Hindi abuse, was trending on Twitter.”

Goswami’s defamation of Sonia as a “bar dancer” is not the first. The BJP had run a political propaganda campaign in the 2004 Lok Sabha election that included this slur.

More important, after the UPA led by the INC won a majority in Lok Sabha, Sonia was almost certain to become prime minister in 2004. 

However, the then leader of the BJP parliamentary party, the late Sushma Swaraj, threatened to shave her head if Sonia became the prime minister.

Swaraj also threatened to don a white sari and sleep on the floor and eat only chickpeas if Sonia Gandhi were sworn in as India’s prime minister.

An India Today report quotes Swaraj targeting Italy-born Sonia as saying, “It hurt my sensibilities as even after culmination of British rule and the sacrifices made by fellow Indians, no [native] was there at that time to lead the country, and a foreigner was being chosen.” 

Sonia stepped back from becoming prime minister because of BJP leaders’ xenophobic remarks. She offered the post to economist-turned-politician Manmohan Singh.

Swaraj’s move was an act of intense hatred toward an alien woman. Later, Swaraj served as India’s external affairs minister during Modi’s first term in 2014-2019. 

Sonia is an Italian native and daughter-in-law of India’s first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and widow of Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who also served as PM.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, her elder son Rajiv entered politics. Before Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, Sonia was a housewife. Born and raised in European culture, Sonia assimilated Indian religion, customs and culture. 

Even after Rajiv’s assassination, she was reluctant to enter Indian politics. After the Congress party pressured her, she joined it in 1997. Sonia, a widow at the age of 43, always tried to maintain a typical Indian women’s appearance in public life. In the media, she still looks like an ordinary elderly Indian woman.

In contrast to their xenophobic and racial slurs against Sonia, BJP leaders and supporters celebrated the election of Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, as the United States’ vice-president-elect in November.

Modi tweeted congratulations to Harris and hailed her Indian family background. 

He wrote, “Heartiest congratulations Kamala Harris! Your success is pathbreaking and a matter of immense pride, not just for your chittis [mother in the Tamil language], but also for all Indian-Americans. I am confident that the vibrant India-US ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.”

Soon afterward, BJP supporters also hailed Harris’ election victory.

The Indian media also commented that India-US relations would be deepened when she became the United States’ vice-president because of her half-Indian origin. Ordinary Indians also celebrated her victory as the accomplishment of a daughter of India.

Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, went to the US from India to study in the mid-1950s. She married a man of a different color, religion, customs, and culture. Shyamala’s legacy is acceptance of diversity and adherence to pluralism and multiculturalism.

Harris also followed in her mother’s footsteps and struggled for social justice and finally was elected as the US vice-president. She is also a campaigner for fostering diversity and plurality. Her mother’s legacy is reflected in her thoughts and deeds. 

BJP leaders and supporters have been applying a double standard, one for an Indian daughter and a different one for an Indian daughter-in-law. 

BJP leaders and supporters treated the success of half-Indian Kamala Harris as an Indian daughter’s accomplishment. Yet they treated Sonia’s political success differently. They did not accept the success of India’s daughter-in-law because of her foreign origin. 

The trolls on Sonia’s birthday gravely run counter to the norms and values of a civilized and democratic country like India.

This incident showed the scale of intolerance prevailing among BJP supporters. This incident depicts India not as the world’s largest democracy, but as the biggest hypocrite under BJP rule. It shows BJP leaders’ and supporters’ mindset on sex, gender, misogyny, and xenophobia in majoritarian India. 

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.