Overseas chief of Indian opposition forced to resign mid-election over ‘different looks’ race remarks

The overseas head of the Indian National Congress, one of India’s main opposition parties, has resigned after a furore over controversial remarks about the country’s racial diversity.

Sam Pitroda, the 82-year-old chair of the Indian Overseas Congress organisation, told The Statesman during an interview: “We have survived 75 years in a very happy environment where people could live together, leaving aside a few fights here and there.

“We could hold a country together as diverse as India, where people on the east look like Chinese, people on the West look like Arab, people on the North look like white and maybe people on the South look like Africans… doesn’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters.

“We all respect different languages, religions, different looks, customs and food. That’s the India I believe in where everybody has a place.”

His comments have been lept upon by critics in India, including prime minister Narendra Modi, who said it “displayed the divisive mindset of Congress”.

Senior Congress politician Jairam Ramesh labelled the remarks “unacceptable analogies on India’s diversity”. He wrote on X: “The analogies drawn by Mr Sam Pitroda in a podcast to illustrate India’s diversity are most unfortunate and unacceptable. The Indian National Congress completely dissociates itself from these analogies.”

The remarks first emerged on Wednesday. By late evening, The Hindu reported that Mr Pitroda had resigned, nudged by the party leadership. But later Mr Ramesh said he resigned “of his own accord”.

“Mr Sam Pitroda has decided to step down as Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress of his own accord. The Congress President has accepted his decision,” Mr Ramesh wrote on X.

Earlier, reacting to Mr Pitroda’s comments, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma – a leading figure in Mr Modi’s BJP – said in a post on X: “Sam bhai, I am from the northeast and I look like an Indian. We are a diverse country – we may look different, but we are all one. Hamare desh ke bare mein thoda to samajh lo! (Please understand at least something about our country).”

Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who hails from Tamil Nadu in the south, said Mr Pitroda’s comments reflected his biases.

“I am from South India. I look Indian! My team has enthusiastic members from northeast India. They look Indian! My colleagues from west India look Indian! But, for the racist who is the mentor of Rahul Gandhi, we all look African, Chinese, Arab and white! Thanks for revealing your mindset and your attitude,” she wrote on X.

Mr Pitroda was an adviser to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and now lives in Chicago.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said: “It is the words and thinking of Rahul Gandhi only, because these days Rahul is also playing the politics of divide and rule to such an extent that first they divide on caste and language lines and now they are doing Indians Vs Indians. To make comments like ‘Indians are like Chinese’ – Isn’t this a racist comment? Isn’t this insulting?”

Mr Pitroda stirred controversy last month about inheritance tax. He said in an interview: “In America, there is an inheritance tax. If one has USD 100 million worth of wealth and when he dies he can only transfer probably 45 per cent to his children, 55 per cent is grabbed by the government. That’s an interesting law. It says you in your generation made wealth and you are leaving now, you must leave your wealth for the public, not all of it, half of it, which to me sounds fair.”

These comments were also seized upon by the ruling party, with Mr Modi claiming the Congress manifesto declared that they would “take stock of the gold mothers and daughters have and will distribute that wealth”. Mr Pitroda said his statement was twisted, while Congress again clarified that Mr Pitroda’s views did not represent their official stance.

During the 2019 general elections in India, Mr Pitroda triggered controversy by dismissing questions about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, stating “so what” and shifting focus to other issues like job creation and smart cities.

This drew massive criticism, with Mr Modi linking the comments to Mr Gandhi and sparking a political debate. Mr Gandhi condemned the remarks and called for an apology, which Mr Pitroda later issued.