Ms Sonia Gandhi has clearly decided not to repeat the mistakes of her ancient compatriot, Julius Caesar. Indeed, the alacrity with which she has accepted the Congress crown brings to mind the wisdom of another Italian notable and his rather acute observation: “Men more readily forgive the murder of their fathers (read husbands) than the loss of their patrimony” (Machiavelli, The Prince).
So it is hardly surprising that having discredited her own party’s Government over the inquiry into her husband’s assassination, and pulling down the United Front regime on the specific issue of Tamil representation in it, Ms Gandhi should piously claim that Tamils hold “a special place” in her family’s heart, and briskly put the assassination episode behind her.
She has wasted no time in getting on to the big picture at her first proper election meeting, with a smart offensive on the Bofors scandal and a sharp attack on the BJP’s espousal of the socio-economic-cultural aspirations of the majority community. With a determination that belies the expectations of even those who suspected her of shrewdness, Ms Sonia Gandhi has assumed the de facto leadership of Congress and made it dear that its manifesto will bear her stamp, the candidates will be selected by her, funds will be allocated by her, and she alone will chalk out the strategy and tenor of its electoral campaign.
Already she has declared herself above “collective leadership”. By all accounts, top Congress leaders have not been privy to her prepared speeches at Sriperumbudur or Bangalore; nor will they be allowed a say in the contents of her future utterances, even though the future of the party hinges so precariously on her performance. But whatever dividends Ms Gandhi may bring the beleaguered Congress, she has chalked out her agenda with scrupulous attention to her own needs.
The careful grabbing of the limelight for herself and daughter, Priyanka Vadra, at Sriperumbudur for instance, is reminiscent of the manner in which senior Congress leaders were shunted out of 10, Janpath when foreign dignitaries arrived to pay respects after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, even though it was the Congress President and former Prime Minister for whom they had come. Her spectacular offensive at Bangalore must have similarly nonplussed the Congress old guard, which is acutely sensitive to the extent of the party’s vulnerability in the Bofors scandal.
Yet, for all her seeming guilelessness, there is a method in Ms Gandhi’s madness. She is fully alive to the critical stage the probe has reached, and conscious that the scandal touches her personally in the form of compatriot Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife Maria, who have been formally named as recipients of the kickbacks. More pertinently, the scandal can engulf her children – and effectively scotch her daughter’s fledgling ambitions, should it turn out that they are the beneficiaries of the secret trusts to which the payoffs have been diverted, a possibility that cannot be ruled out.
In this context, it is easy to discern Ms Gandhi’s motives in raising the spectre of Bofors precisely the way she did at Bangalore. By unexpectedly seizing the initiative, she deftly sought to limit the fallout of the inquiry to the deceased Rajiv Gandhi, and to make out that it is a fight between a dead man and his jealous political rivals. The move is shrewd, though cold-blooded, and if Ms Sonia Gandhi has no qualms about misusing her late husband while forwarding her political interests, she cannot cry foul when opposition parties raise the issue of probity and accountability in public life, and the extra-constitutional powers she may have exercised as the Prime Minister’s wife, not mention her subsequent role in the slow pace of the inquiry.
Questions about her Italian origins are legitimate in view of the access she may have provided to foreign agents, already evident in the Bofors case. Today, Sonia Gandhi seeks blind acceptance on the basis of her 30-year stay in India as a member of Indira Gandhi’s family, but will she be so good as to tell us where her loyalty to the family, not to mention her much-vaunted love for India, was when she sought refuge in the Italian Embassy in New Delhi after the Congress Party’s defeat in 1977? What is truly remarkable in this controversy, however, is the exalted cosmopolitanism of certain sections of our intelligentsia, who can countenance the thought of an outsider, for whom even English is a foreign language, as Prime Minister, with equanimity.
Ms Gandhi has gushed about Rajiv’s personal commitment to the Babri structure in the hope that her audience will listen without application of mind. She needs to understand that rewriting history is a risky enterprise; it pays off only if you have absolute power, or when public memory is so faded that none can remember the truth. But since she has valiantly, if somewhat foolishly, initiated the debate, it is valid to ask what Rajiv had conceived for the Babri structure in view of the fact that it was he who permitted the shilanyas for the Ram Temple, and he who launched the Ram Rajya campaign from Ayodhya.
More pertinently, given the rumours that rent the air when the locks at Ayodhya were opened, it is time to ask her whether it is true that this was part of a deal with a Hindu organisation to allow the Pope to have a demonstration-free visit to India? Given the cynicism with which religious sentiments were exploited during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, it is only fair to ask Ms Gandhi to what extent the riots that broke out after the opening of the shrine were the fallout of visits of certain Congress leaders to certain states? Finally, since she has posited Babri as a Muslim issue, she must tell us whether she has anything beyond the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act to offer to Muslim women.
Much is being made about her exemplary conduct after widowhood (a euphemism for the sexual reticence common in Indian women), and her studied non-interest in politics until “forced” to jump to the party’s rescue. The record, however, shows that Ms Gandhi has scrupulously kept abreast of all developments in the party, the Government, and the Bofors case; and encouraged Congress leaders to call upon her, especially when they had grievances with Mr PV Narasimha Rao and Mr. Sitaram Kesri. Even a cursory look at the events leading to the exit of Mr Arjun Singh and Mr. Narain Dutt Tiwari when Mr. Rao rebuffed her move to avert a split, bears this out.
As for her refusal to join politics, I may point out that it is a standard Indian practice, in rich and political families, for widows to bide their time till their heirs attain maturity. It is, therefore, no surprise that Ms Gandhi condescended to “rescue” the Congress only when her daughter became eligible to contest elections. It will be entirely in line with her style of functioning if, in another “surprise” move, Ms Priyanka Gandhi is fielded from an old family constituency.
Yet, despite her skilful obfuscation of critical issues, Ms Gandhi’s real battle is not so much with the BJP as with Mr Narasimha Rao, who single-handedly reversed the trend of establishing India as a non-Hindu enterprise. She has already declared her side with her pronounced stress on minorities. Mr Rao has not been given the party ticket, but significantly, he has already won the first round in the manner of Harijan leader BP Maurya’s exit. Her reply is awaited.
The Pioneer, 26 January 1998