Commentary/Varsha Bhosle

Cat among the pigeons

In the last seven years, I have more or less kept off Sonia Gandhi. As far as I was concerned, she was the Italian widow of an Indian Airlines pilot who, by an idiosyncrasy of fate, became the prime minister of India and was later assassinated rather brutally.

Other than that, the lady wore wonderful saris, did all those nice things which rich social-workers and politicians’ wives do, reared her children well (I hope), named plenty of institutions and buildings after her late husband, and generally kept away from politics. Of course, as any person who can read between a newspaper’s lines will tell you, this is a very simplistic and surface evaluation. But, no matter what the magi said, it didn’t bother me: As long as Mrs Gandhi kept away from the public political platform, she did not warrant a dragging into print. That is not the case any more.

The landslide victory of Sonia’s late husband was due only to the power of television, which unwittingly beamed into Indian hearts his eerily stoical face at his mother’s funeral. Thereafter, canvassing for the Congress became a mere formality – India had already decided when Rajiv’s close-ups were being etched into its collective memory. There’s no point in exhuming the issue of how proficient a PM Rajiv Gandhi was, and what the state of the exchequer was at the time of his demise. Neither would it be wise to comment on his mother Indira Gandhi, whose operative moves and effectiveness still defy labelling. Nor would I advise assessing his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and his naïve chant of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai.

The track records of her late relatives should have no bearing on Sonia’s projected capabilities in politics – that would plainly be prejudice. Just as thwarting her ambitions on the basis of colour, religion or background would be discrimination. Let’s examine just her: What are Sonia’s educational qualifications? Cambridge University does not corroborate her association with any college in England; she was, perhaps, enrolled in some tutorial class. What are her leadership qualities? She presides over the public-money-endowed Rajiv Gandhi Foundation which blankly refused to have its accounts audited as required by the authorities. What experience does she have? Rajiv, the greenest of horns we’ve ever been saddled with, had at least won an election under his mother’s aegis and while assisting her… Yes, Sonia is suitable for India, all right.

Well, even the Congress thought so: 10, Janpath quickly acquired not only the power of 10, Downing Street, but also the significance of Buckingham Palace. Recall P V Narasimha Rao’s meeting with Sonia in the wake of the 1995 electoral debacle – it was “to get a new lease of life”. Or the frequent visits by Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari “to convey the impression that they had the lady’s blessings for their crusade against Rao to project themselves as her protégés”. Or Congress Parliamentary Party secretary Sudhir Sawant’s pleading, “We draw inspiration, hope and strength from this house, I request you to help in resolving the crisis and lead us.” Or Sitaram Kesri placing his cap before Sonia. Or a veteran like G K Moopanar discussing with her the pros and cons of the Tamil Maanila Congress returning to the United Front…

On April 25, at a mushaira/kavi sammelan organised by the Society for Secularism at Kanpur, Sonia Gandhi gave a speech in Hindi – with Congressman Mani Shankar Iyer standing right behind her all through. To a packed ground, Sonia spoke of the need for communal harmony and how essential it was for the unity and progress of the country; how communal strife has caused immense damage; and how necessary it was for people to bridge the communal divide with mutual faith and love.

So far so good: This is the sort of stuff that anybody would and should feel and say (and never mind that it’s pure eyewash). However, these admirable ideas were also interspersed with plenty of “saampradayik shaktiyan ” – which, as the Congress and every component of the UF never fail to remind us, are the Bharatiya Janata Party and parivaari company (and never mind that the Muslim League which is a part of the UF is not branded as such). I knew something was afoot.

It is said that what Sonia dreads most is a BJP government at the Centre, since what she needs most for the preservation of her interests is a government that is at least not openly antagonistic to her. Whether such a government is headed by Arjun Singh or P V Narasimha Rao or H D Deve Gowda or I K Gujral was never the issue.

But the day Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day government fell, “one of the biggest smiles was perhaps on the face of Sonia Gandhi”. With the balance clearly tipped in the BJP’s favour by the events leading to the toppling of Deve Gowda, it was evident that Sonia had begun a campaign against mitthoo miya‘s divisive-fundamentalist-communalist forces. After all, never mind how entirely liked I K Gujral may be, it’s equally obvious that the alliance itself can’t last long. An election seems likely, and Sonia was helping out with a little canvassing for the Congress.

Or so I had thought. Clearly, the lady has much more spunk than I gave her credit for. Sonia wishes to politick, and so she must.

With the Election Commission having set the deadline for Congress’s elections, Sonia’s timing for joining the party should come as no surprise. She will be nominated as party president, after which, she will go straight to the top – for the cow-belt will cast their votes, as always, for this extension of the Nehrus. By dint of this trait, Sonia is the ace-in-the-hole that Congress needs so desperately. Therefore, isn’t it extremely urgent that Sonia’s financial affairs be scrutinised? Are we allowed to base our evaluations on some semblance of productiveness at the grass-roots level? Can the CBI give her a clean chit on the 10-year-old Bofors scandal – in which the Opposition alleged that Rajiv was the recipient of massive kickbacks…?

With which, we come to l’affaire “Q”. It was Martin Ardbo, then chief executive of A B Bofors, who in his diary noted that he was worried about “Q” and his links with “RG”. “Q” was Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi and – in context of his friendship with Sonia Gandhi and her Turin-based family – “RG” could refer only to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The connection between Quattrocchi and the Gandhis was highlighted when, in 1995, the Central Bureau of Investigation interrogated alleged hawala swindler J K Jain, who alleged that he had met Quattrocchi at Rajiv’s home, and that Q had at the time acted as an agent between Rajiv and two foreign firms, Alsthom and Senca. When the Bofors papers finally reached India, they named Quattrocchi and Win Chadha as recipients of the kickbacks on the Bofors gun deal…

The absurd thing is that the Bofors bogey had served a perverse political purpose – it had kept Sonia’s ambitions in check. Each time it seemed that Sonia was assuming a commanding image, Congress leaders would stir up in the media the Bofors-papers/Quattrocchi hornet’s nest; and each such leak would be followed by a restoration of the status quo. Now, with Congress’s very existence in peril, Bofors has been blanketed.

However, I’m told that there’s excitement in Delhi’s air again: It seems that the hounds are sniffing at Sonia Gandhi’s 17 visits to Bangkok in the last 12 months – the most recent one being around the time of Deve Gowda’s confidence-motion in the Lok Sabha. It is unlikely that Madam Gandhi was on a goodwill visit to improve Indo-Thai relations (you see, there was no press coverage). A little bird tells me that the trips have something to do with antiques.

But what do such trivialities matter? Basically, we simply beg to be ruled. When we weren’t ordered by maharajahs, we welcomed their foreign avatars. Later, when the shifting demands of Hitler’s Europe made the Raj untenable, we promptly laid the foundations for our own political dynasty by the excessive adoration of a man who cost India the North West Province. And it still continues… When the prime minister of India makes panic visits – not to the head of the state – but to a woman without even a portfolio for an extension of his post, how can one call this country fit for democracy? If a Union Cabinet minister submits to being known as the protégé of – not a political thinker or a professor or even a sadhu – but the widow of a dim-witted politician, where can we go but down? No doubt, that’s where Nehru’s secularism will drag us all.


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