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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK

World: South Asia

Indian PM attacks Gandhi's foreign roots

Mrs Gandhi's Italian roots are becoming a major election issue

By Ram Dutt Tripathi in Lucknow

The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, has said his main election rival Sonia Gandhi should not be allowed to lead the country because she is a ''foreigner''.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
Until now, Mr Vajpayee has avoided commenting on Mrs Gandhi's Italian origin.

But at a news conference in his constituency of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, he described Mrs Gandhi as a ''foreigner'', even though she has acquired Indian citizenship.

During persistent questioning, the prime minister said the real issue was Mrs Gandhi's foreign origin, which he said nobody could deny.

Mr Vajpayee became a little irritated by the line of questioning and urged reporters to ask him other questions.

But when he was again pressed to comment on Mrs Gandhi's foreign origins, he said that as an India citizen she could contest elections, but she should not occupy the highest post.

Gandhi stronghold

Mrs Gandhi's foreign origin is one of the main issues for the governing Bhartiya Janata Party, especially in the southern constituency of Bellary, where Mrs Gandhi is contesting parliamentary elections for the first time.

[ image: Mr Vajpayee: Warning of election law changes]
Mr Vajpayee: Warning of election law changes
She is also standing for election in the Amethi seat in the state of Uttar Pradesh - a traditional Gandhi stronghold which is near the prime minister's constituency in Lucknow.

At present the Indian constitution does not bar citizens of foreign origin from holding any executive post.

Author and commentator Tariq Ali on the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty
In fact, it prohibits any discrimination on the grounds of place of birth.

To overcome this law the National Democratic Alliance led by Mr Vajpayee has proposed in its manifesto to amend the law so that only Indian-born citizens can hold high office.

Congress rebels

It is not only the BJP that has questioned Mrs Gandhi's foreign origin - so too have members of her own party.

In May, some of them formed a new party called the Indian Nationalist Congress led by the Maharashtra politician, Sharad Pawar.

Meanwhile, Mrs Gandhi has been promoting her Indian citizenship.

At different public meetings, she has stressed it is an question that will be determined by the Indian people themselves.

It looks as if this issue will be central in the battle to determine who will be India's next prime minister: the election is now almost certainly a straight fight between Mr Vajpayee and Mrs Gandhi.

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