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Dynastic Perks - India Today

Harinder Baweja ()
February 16, 1998

Title: Dynastic Perks
Author: Harinder Baweja
Publication: India Today
Date: February 16, 1998

It is not normal for political campaigners to be put up at Raj
Bhavans during election tours. But when the VIP happens to be the
Congress party's star campaigner Sonia Gandhi, the governors are
only too happy to accommodate her at their official residences.
Indeed, as others rough it out on their campaign trails, the lady
of 10 janpath prefers to stay at Raj Bhavans during her election
tour halts in state capitals.

Even though the facility-subject to availability of rooms-is
extended only to former prime ministers, in the case of Sonia,
the governor's office is tipped off in advance. As was the case
when she made night halts between election rallies at Chennai and
Bangalore. Responding to requests from her private secretary
Vincent George, both Karnataka Governor Khurshid Alam Khan and
Tamil Nadu's Fatima Beevi invited her to stay over as their
personal guest. It suits Sonia too, to be in the guarded
precincts of the Raj Bhavan. For, immediately after delivering
her speech, she retires to her room, away from the media.

True, even as a private person Sonia has always wielded enormous
clout, with a push-button access to virtually every ministry in
the Government of India. And nothing has changed even after her
formal entry into public life. As a key campaigner for the
Congress party, she continues to enjoy special perks. In fact,
she is being treated as the star campaigner.

A few hours before her first public appearance at Sriperumbudur
on January 11, a senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer was busy
clearing his files and handing over charge. He was on way to his
next assignment-actually, back to 10 janpath as deputy director,
Special Protection Group (SPG).

Bharat Wanchoo had been relieved from 10 janpath and posted to
the IB in early December but he was back at his previous
assignment in mid-January, even though SPG chief M.R. Reddy was
unhappy with the "political order". But then, the request had
come from Sonia and it was carried out in record time. The Prime
Minister's Office, the Home Ministry, the Department of Personnel
and the IB ignored the rules and complied. During the course of
their training, SPG officials are told not to get close to the
people they protect and hence there's a two-year cool-off period
between two assignments with the SPG.

Sonia's wish is inevitably taken as a command, even when it
involves' bending the rules. Recently, the licences of four
senior pilots who flew her and Congress President Sitaram Kesri
to Rohtak on January 28 for an election rally were cancelled
because they violated security restriction. Non-scheduled flights
are banned during specific hours for a week from January 26 in
view of the Republic Day celebrations. But Sonia's clout in the
Home Ministry ensured that the charges against the pilots were
promptly dropped.

Already, Sonia is being accused by the BJP of running a "hit-and-
run" campaign. She is the only SPG-protected person around whom
an iron ring has been thrown. Says a senior security officer:
s per the threat perception, Vajpayee is rated as No 1 on the
hit-list, followed by Sonia Gandhi, but more fuss is being made
about her." During her rallies, Sonia's dais is completely out of
bounds. And of those under the Z-plus category, she is the only
one for whom the state governments put up the stage.

When it comes to official functions, even Rashtrapati Bhavan has
been according Sonia a special status. A clear violation of the
"Charter of Precedence" which lists the order of seniority for
protocol purposes. But at all functions, be it the t Home"
hosted by the President or a banquet in honour of a visiting
dignitary, a seat is earmarked for Sonia along with former prime
ministers.

If, as chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Sonia wishes
to host a reception at Hyderabad House, the Ministry of External
Affairs obliges even though it is meant for official banquets in
honour of visiting head of states and foreign dignitaries. Two of
her pet projects-the Vir Bhumi and Sriperumbudur Memorial Concept
Committees and the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Museum-are funded by
the Rural Development Ministry and the Department of Culture.

But now that she has chosen the political route, Sonia has also
exposed herself to attacks. Her special status is being
questioned not just by the opposition parties but there are
rumblings within the Congress too. There's a feeling that she has
converted her public appearances into family shows. During the
Amethi rally, for instance, the AICC had to hire two helicopters
to accommodate Sonia, - son Rahul, Priyanka and husband Robert
Vadra, George and the SPG commandos. And for the Rohtak rally,
two helicopters were used even though no family member was
accompanying her. Reason: she didn't want to travel in the same
chopper as Kesri.

Nobody in the Congress, however, is complaining openly. Nor for
that matter is anybody in the Government. "It is just a courtesy
we extend," say protocol officials who have accorded Sonia
special status. And made her a star who wields influence. The
influence that has become part and parcel of what is called the
"Sonia factor".

SPECIAL PRIVILEGES

Stays in Raj Bhavans when even former prime ministers do not
always have that privilege.

Asks for specific SPG officers and the Government bends rules to
accede.

At official functions she is seated along with Vajpayee, Chandra
Shekhar, Rao, Deve Gowda and V.P. Singh.

As chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and other family
trusts, she has favourite bureaucrats on deputation as trustees.

Government allows her trusts facilities that no other NGO is
entitled to.


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