Sonia's liturgy

Print edition : January 24, 1998

SONIA GANDHI'S induction as the Congress(I)'s star - and unexpectedly disputatious - campaigner has livened up the atmospherics of what began to look like a dull twelfth general election. That her decision to come to the aid of a dispirited party in headlong historic decline will make some kind of difference to the outcome of a contest that seems guaranteed to produce another hung Parliament is no longer in question. Her sudden appearance in the rough and tumble of electoral politics has had the effect of lifting spirits within the party and attracting a noticeable degree of mass voter curiosity. It seems also to have galvanised party rank and file, and State and district level leaders, in some key States out of a visible inertia. In the Congress(I) camp, hyper-rhetoric aside, expectation of gain from the Sonia effect seems to range from 20 to 40 Lok Sabha seats.

If that happens, it could in a tight election make the difference between BJP & Friends reaching a 'winning' threshold of 220-230 seats (in a Lok Sabha of 543) and falling demoralisingly and bitterly short. The trend of the serious pre-election public opinion polls thus far has favoured the Bharatiya Janata Party as the party likely to emerge in front (with its holdall of core, opportunist plus ragtag allies), but clearly in a non-majority and vulnerable status. While BJP leaders and spokespersons claim they are not in the least concerned about the Sonia effect (which some of them suggest will harm principally the United Front, in States where U.F. constituents are directly pitted against the Congress), the objective evidence suggests the saffron brigade is apprehensive and worried.

Be that as it may, how has the Sonia campaign performed in relation to key policy issues? To the extent Phase I of her campaign, touching the four southern States, has targeted the communal challenge and spoken up for a secular, non-chauvinistic and non-divisive approach to politics, it can be appreciated as a spirited counter to the BJP. "It is this devotion to India," she told the modest crowd at Sriperumbudur where she symbolically launched her campaign in the company of Priyanka (a young woman to watch, politically speaking), "that brings me before you today - not to seek political office and position - but to share with you my concern for our country's future. We do not want our society to be broken up into fragments. We do not want our people to be separated from one another by caste or language, religion or region... As a country we prize our diversity... we cannot achieve what we seek without upholding our national traditions and values of democracy, secularism and social justice." Had she concentrated on, or worked up, this theme, her campaign for her party would have acquired salience, meaning, mobilisational focus.

But after a somewhat sober and promising start, the Sonia campaign has moved in ill-advised directions, resorted to some demonstrable falsehoods, and become highly vulnerable to counter-argument and counter-attack, not merely of the saffron variety. Given the rough and competitive nature of an election campaign where power is up for grabs and an aggressive and untried opponent is claiming that it alone can provide 'stability' at the Centre, no undue immodesty need be detected in Sonia Gandhi's assertion that the Congress has been and is the only party offering "stable and effective governance" to the people of India. But her uninhibited, indeed shameless, playing of the dynastic card; her curmudgeonly stand on the rights and wrongs of the Bofors payoff scandal; and the tall claim she has made, at this late stage, about her husband's noble, do-or-die stand on Ayodhya and tackling communalism - these need to be countered and exposed by those who believe in truth-telling and an objective, fair and non-dynastic approach to politics.

How does the dynastic principle or imperative work in Sonia Gandhi's case? At one level, she has over the long term been self-consciously non-political: "We had both observed the world of politics from a distance. We had come to understand the critical line that distinguishes ambition from a sense of purpose." (Prologue in Rajiv by Sonia Gandhi, Viking, Penguin India, 1992.) Therefore, when an Indira Gandhi traumatised by her younger son's violent death and standing "crushed and alone", turned to her elder son so that the dynastic principle could be put to work despite his evident disinclination, the elder son's wife "fought like a tigress", to use her own words. "I understood Rajiv's duty to her," she explains in the same worshipful, but insightful account. "At the same time I was angry and resentful towards a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him - of that I was absolutely certain."

Personal feelings, free individual choice, intra-familial equations, near-superstitious forebodings, temperamental inclinations, absence of capabilities - all these stand no chance against the pull of the dynastic principle, the ineffable destiny of the Nehru-Indira Gandhi family (and anyone coming into it through any contingency) to step forward, as in some Greek tragedy, and offer themselves for 'national duty' and 'sacrifice'- to wit, supreme leadership of the Congress, the leading party of the freedom struggle, and overweening power at the helm of government.

The deterioration in this respect from Jawaharlal Nehru, India's greatest Prime Minister to date, through Indira Gandhi, a flawed leader with overweening ambition, weak democratic scruple but undisputed accomplishments, whose vision can still be recognised as largely political and interesting, to Rajiv Gandhi, whose helmsmanship was an embarrassingly simple story of linear decline for the party and government vis-a-vis core values - this is part of the political history of independent India.

But in Sonia's privileging and political canonisation of the family she married into three decades ago, the order of merit is perversely reversed - with Rajiv Gandhi and not his grandfather enjoying top billing. It is because she, as a non-political person, failed against the inexorable process that saw her husband being served up as a "sacrificial lamb" at the altar of "national duty" despite her fighting "like a tigress", that she now has (as she put it at Sriperumbudur) no choice but to "put aside my own inclinations", sacrifice her status as "a private person" living "a life away from the political arena", and "step forward" in the sanctified family "tradition of duty before personal considerations".

Sonia Gandhi's reconstructed political history, or rather liturgy, is completely blind to the Rajiv raj's major policy failures on several fronts (notably on the front against communalism and Hindu Rashtra ideology), corruption scandals (notably Bofors), and factors other than the malice and viciousness of an unnamed confederacy of opponents bent on sullying the name of the sanctified family and destroying the reputation of her husband. It is the same kind of moral and political blindness that is revealed in the personal and political history, or rather liturgy, constructed by Benazir Bhutto for the nearly fallen and highly corrupt Bhutto family of Pakistan; the tendency is expressed fascinatingly in Benazir's pre-helmswoman autobiographical work, Daughter of the East.

Rajiv Gandhi was involved neck-deep in the Bofors kickback scandal. It is true that we have not reached the end of the story and that no direct evidence showing payments to Rajiv Gandhi or to any secret Gandhi family account abroad has yet surfaced. However, the media and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigations have established, on the basis of incontrovertible documentary evidence, a great deal against the Rajiv raj and the former Prime Minister personally. This includes evidence (see cover story in Frontline of February 21, 1997) against

* arbitrary, non-transparent and corrupt decision-making on the choice of howitzer - going against the grain of a series of expert Army evaluations

* venal crisis management and cover-up, for which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a heavy price at the hands of millions of Indian voters whose intelligence need not be insulted

* the deep involvement in the scandal of Gandhi family confidant and crony Ottavio Quattrocchi, wanted by the CBI but allowed, through official collusion, to flee the country and remain beyond the reach of Indian law.

The body of damaging evidence includes material against Rajiv Gandhi contained in the authenticated Martin Ardbo diary references to the "Gandhi Truste(e) lawyer" and to disturbing consequences for "R" (Rajiv Gandhi) given "Q involvement" (Quattrocchi's involvement) and the fact of "his close connection to R." The material evidence against Rajiv Gandhi recorded by the CBI includes the first-rate and damaging testimony of India's former Ambassador to Sweden, B.M. Oza (see Bofors: The Ambassador's Evidence by B.M. Oza, Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1997, reviewed by N. Ram in Frontline, August 8, 1997).

Sonia Gandhi's falsification of the record on Bofors is matched only by her disingenuousness in presenting Rajiv Gandhi as a steadfast and heroic campaigner against communalism as a political mobilisation strategy. Sonia herself did not go on record with any kind of condemnation after the vile and barbaric act of demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Now she has introduced new evidence, before a predominantly Muslim audience in Hyderabad, that Rajiv Gandhi told her a month before his assassination that should any attempt be made to touch the Babri Masjid, he would stand in front of it and they would have to kill him first. ("Such was his dedication to a secular India.")

The historical record shows that Rajiv it was whose policies anticipated the infamous "soft saffron" policy of the P.V. Narasimha Rao dispensation. In fact, the Rajiv government seemed to go along with, if it did not connive at, the business of unlocking (in February 1986) the gates of a disputed structure to Hindu worship; this was the beginning of a new compromising policy chapter that culminated in demolition. The Rajiv Government's dishonourable policy towards the aggressive Ayodhya mobilisation by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) saw the Central Government-approved conduct in late September 1989, on the eve of the general election, of shilanyas on the disputed site.

Nor was this cynical opportunism towards communalism in politics restricted to Rajiv Gandhi's stand on the Babri Masjid. It was encapsulated in his notorious reaction (reported in various Indian newspapers on November 20, 1984) to the slaughter of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi: "When a great tree falls, the mother earth underneath shakes." It was expressed, in May 1986, in his government's capitulation to Muslim fundamentalism by introducing the retrograde Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill.

Sonia Gandhi's campaign, in short, is based on a liturgy that is constructed of partly plausible, not ineffective but largely fanciful - or false - material. While seeming to tilt against the saffron brigade, the liturgy itself is profoundly antithetical to the core values of democracy and probity in public life.

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