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HVK Archives: Questions for the Sphinx

Questions for the Sphinx - The Indian Express

T.V.R. Shenoy ()
January 3, 1998

Title: Questions for the Sphinx
Author: T.V.R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 3, 1998

hat walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and
on three legs at dusk?" was the famous question posed by the
Sphinx. The answer, as Oedipus figured out, was Man. A modem
Sphinx may pose a more contemporary question: "What stands on its
feet in the morning, sinks to its knees by noon, and crawls
abjectly on its belly at dusk?"

The answer is a Congressman. And if you doubt that, pray spend
five minutes outside 10, Janpath. Ever since Sonia Gandhi
announced her decision to campaign, ecstatic partymen are falling
over each other for the privilege of grovelling on her gravel. I
don't blame them. Sonia Gandhi is definitely a far more
attractive figure on the platform than Sitaram Kesri.

But isn't that like saying that Rabri Devi is more likeable than
Laloo Prasad Yadav? If comparisons are to be made and they shall
be made - the benchmark won be the men of straw in the
Congress. Perhaps that is harsh on the Congress. Sonia Gandhi's
arrival demonstrates that the Family can't take the party for
granted any more. So, instead of a discreet darshan, the
standing of the Nehru-Gandhis shall be determined by the voter.

Once the initial euphoria dies down, Congressmen must ask
themselves some questions. Does Sonia Gandhi possess an iota of
the fabled family charisma" Can she whip Moopanar and Mamata
Bannerjee back into the Congress pens? And are there any
skeletons in the cupboards at 10, Janpath? The Congress is
rightly wary of such queries. Which probably explains why they
are doing two things: busily defending Sonia Gandhi against
charges that were never raised in the first place, and making
dishonest attacks on other parties.

How else do you explain the gratuitous remarks on Rome Raj vs
Ramraj? Or the bald statements that she isn't a foreigner?
Neither the BJP nor the United Front ever attacked the lady on
such utterly silly grounds.

How about the other side of the coin, the Congress spokesman's
famous questions to Vajpayee? What, for instance, does Gadgil
mean by asking if the BJP leader shares Guru Golwalkar's alleged
view that minority communities are "guests" in this country?
Gadgil should pose that question to his own leader. For 14 years
after her marriage Sonia Gandhi was indeed a "guest" in India,
refusing to renounce her Italian passport. But in this country
we believe that atithi devo bhava. And the devi of 10, Janpath
got concessions denied to mere mortals, including permission to
work as an insurance agent and to hold a directorship in her
brother-in-law's controversial Maruti project.

Those may be forgotten today, but there are other points on which
Sonia Gandhi must break her silence. Let me enumerate those that
come to mind. To begin with, what is her position on the
investigation into her husband's assassination? When Narasimha
Rao was the Prime Minister, she expressed her "anguish" at a
meeting in Amethi. But that speech and a written submission to
the Jain Commission sum up her public comments.

India faces polls because of the Congress stance on the Jain
Commission's Interim Report. It is widely believed, not least by
Congressmen, that the hardeners were encouraged by Sonia Gandhi.
Shouldn't she tell us all precisely why Rs 1,000 crore must be
spent on mid-term elections?

Secondly, why is she shying away from clearing the air once and
for all on her relations with the Quattrocchi family? She can
scarcely deny that they were close pals - her Italian relatives
used to stay with the Quattrocchis when they came to India. Nor
can it be denied that Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife both
feature rather too prominently in the messy Bofors affair.

That scandal directly impinges on the reputation of the late Raj
iv Gandhi. Surely honour demands that his widow explain how her
Italian friends homed in into a deal between the Indian
government and a Swedish manufacturer.

Thirdly, Sonia Gandhi has some explaining with regard to her own
possessions. She is the chairperson and/or chief executive of
several institutions with a net worth of several hundred crores.

Take Jawahar Bhawan in the very heart of Delhi, to name but one
piece of prime real estate now under Sonia Gandhi's stewardship.
How did it ever come under her aegis? The land was given to the
Congress by the Government of India on the specific understanding
that the party vacated all the other bungalows - a round dozen at
last count - that it occupies. Well, Jawahar Bhawan is a concrete
reality today. Why then is the mighty AICC still housed in 24,
Akbar Road? How did that glass and marble palace on Raisina Road
end up as the preserve of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation?

Sonia Gandhi heads other bodies too, trusts in the name of
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, for instance. Do they also
own properties of equal magnificence? Shouldn't Sonia Gandhi
deign to explain how much cash those trusts manage, the source of
those funds, and the projects in which they are used? I am not,
repeat not, asking the lady about her own personal property. Even
Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity faces such queries, so it
isn't a question of any vendetta. These are simply routine
questions put to any organisation working in the public domain.

If nothing else, the case of Jawahar Bhawan marks a break with
family tradition. Motilal Nehru gave away Swaraj Bhawan and
Indira Gandhi followed suit with Anand Bhawan. It definitely
looks uncouth if a building named after Pandit Motilal's heir is
wrested in the name of Indira's son.
But this seems to be the season for ignoring healthy precedents!
Though Sonia Gandhi has agreed to campaign, the Congress has
entered two caveats. First, she isn't going to be projected as
the party candidate for Prime Minister. Second, she herself
won't contest. This is a political seam. If the Congress gets
votes in her name, it is she who has a mandate, not some dark
horse. And if she goes to Race Course Road without entering the
Lok Sabha, she continues the "unhealthy precedent" condemned by
the Congress when it came to Deve Gowda and Gujral.

In his memoirs, Jawaharlal Nehru expresses his annoyance at the
backroom manoeuvres which brought him the Congress presidency.
It was, he wrote, a "trapdoor entry"! In Sonia Gandhi's case,
arriving on the platform may not be a trap-door as much as a
trap. Thus far the Sphinx of 10, Janpath never faced
embarrassing questions - on the Quattrocchis and Jawahar Bhawan,
or on Justice Jain's findings. Finding satisfactory answers to
them will be tougher than figuring out the Sphinx's ancient
riddle. And, as Dr Lohia pointed out 30 years ago, there is no
Man in the Congress to help her out!

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