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Curiosity? Myopia? Servility? - The Asian Age

Arun Shourie ()
February 13, 1998

Title: Curiosity? Myopia? Servility?
Author: Arun Shourie
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: February 13, 1998

onia Gandhi endeared herself to women and the youth in Udaipur
today," said a gushing TV reporter, by taking up issues close to
their hearts - price rise, and unemployment." In another report
of the same day, she was reported to "have taken up the issue of
corruption."

In what sense had Sonia "taken up the issue"? She reads out a
sentence - I know how difficult it is for you, specially for my
sisters here to make ends meet these days, prices have risen so
much because of instability -- and "the issue" of price rise had
been "taken up." "Berozgari bahut badh gayee hai,": and the "the
issue" of unemployment had, at least in the reckoning of large
sections of the media been "taken up". And what, having just
flagged off the campaign of Satish Sharma - indicted by the
Supreme Court for having made a retail business of his ministry -
did she say on corruption? That everyone wants to live a life of
dignity, that we do not want to have to bend and cringe before
every officer of the state: In what sense does that amount to
"taking up the issue of corruption"?

And yet that is what the press proclaimed she had done. Earlier
we had been told that she had "trumped", her opponents by
onfronting Bofors head-on." But what had she said on Bofors?
That she for one has always wanted the papers to be out at the
earliest. That is "confronting the issue head-on?" Not a word
about the accounts into which the money went: their particulars
were published ten years ago, after all, and they were published
in the teeth of denials and naked force deployed by her husband.
Having told her so many things in private, did he never say
anything about these accounts? Not a word about why her husband
changed his statements about the matter every other week? Not a
word about why he felt it necessary to suborn Parliament, to
prostitute its committee? Not a word why he felt compelled to
sacrifice his Prime Ministership rather than let the inquiry
proceed? Sonia says she herself wants the truth to be out at the
earliest: Is there is slightest shred of evidence that she did
anything, that she expressed some shock, even in private, when
one attempt to prevent the truth from surfacing was nailed? The
way the offer of Bofors to reveal the names to the JPC was
squashed by Rajiv, the way a foreign minister of a Congress
government was caught surreptitiously delivering a letter to the
foreign minister of Switzerland stating that the Government of
India did not want the inquiry to continue... ? Is there even one
occasion on which Sonia took the slightest step to help the truth
come out? But today, her saying, "I myself want the truth to come
out at the earliest" is projected to be "confronting the Bofors
issue head-on."

"Sonia apologises for Bluestar" - this, when all she had said was
that those things hould not have happened." That a statement
such as that should be taken to be an apology, and that an
apology should be deemed to be enough what is one to infer from
this?

This is just the way the media functions these days, explains my
friend. And in part, he is right. Sonia is new, so Sonia is
news. However, there is a problem, the newspapers and TV channels
see. And there is the predictable solution: Sonia is the lead-
story for now; but she is uttering only inanities; as you have to
report those inanities nonetheless, read into the new inanity,
the inanity of the day some superlative significance, and,
presto, her speech is news. But in doing that the press and TV
are creating news. Fabricating something out of nothing.

But is that - the nature of news - all? I sense an affinity. For
the press itself "deals -with" issues at no deeper level than
Sonia is doing. So it does not see the utter hollowness of her
speeches. And there is gratitude. The secularists in the media
were completely befuddled, what With the crumbling of each one of
their "pillars of secularism" - Mulayam Singh, Kanshi Ram, Laloo,
the Untied Front itself. She has given them ground for hope. And
who can complain: Is not Castro himself turning to the Pope?

But the matter is not confined to reporters: Very large numbers
are turning up at her meetings, after all. Newspaper accounts of
some of the meetings have reported that people in the audience
could be seen to be wiping tears from their eyes. Is it that they
too feel that in reading out those inanities she has actually
"taken up" the issue of price rise, of unemployment of
corruption? I don't want to be too despondent about the people -
at least, as Sonia would say, "for now"! After all, it is the
same people who by their silence, their nonchalance, by what they
must have led her intelligence agencies to believe, it is the
same people who fooled Mrs Gandhi into announcing elections in
January 1977; it is the same sort of people in Pakistan who led
so may newsmen - specially foreign newsmen - to believe that
Imran Khan had as good as swept the country. But the very fact
that such vast numbers are flocking to her meetings is enough
ground for apprehension. Why do they travel distances, and wait
an hour or two to see and hear her?

Because she is a new face? Because she is the latest non-
politician ? Because she is foreign-born? Of course, if the
last, that would not be enough by itself - they wouldn't flock
the same way to see an African or Burmese, so to the extent that
it is the exotica of being foreign, it is the old racial
inferiority complex vis a vis the white skin. But still, in what
sense do they get to see the whiteness? In a crowd of a lakh, a
dot seen far away - for ten -fifteen minutes? What sort of
curiosity is it which is satiated by a glimpse of that kind?
Could it be that these thousands too feel that she has ddressed
the issue?" Do they feel, "God be thanked, she has heard our
sighs, she has spared a thought for our pain." and that no more
can be expected of Royalty? After all, it can't be that as a
result of what she said at any meeting, they got to know what she
or the party she controls will do on any matter she "addressed."

In spite of the scores of meetings she has addressed, no one
anywhere in the country is any the wiser about her views on any
issue. She remains at the end of the campaign what she was at the
beginning - the one entity about which even less is known than
about the Swiss accounts into which the Bofors money went.

What she has done is to reveal three things. First, that the
Congress is nothing, it is certainly nothing to her. Ever heard
any other Congress leader speak in her presence, ever seen anyone
of them even try to approach her on the dais? Ever seen anyone -
in particular any other Congressman - attach any importance to
what other Congress leaders have or are saying, when she is at
the meeting? Should the party do well, should it form a
government, she will be the government, and she alone the others
will be no more than doormats. And public life will consist of
second-guessing the office Priyanka has agreed to take over,
whether she is to be .dreaded or her husband, whether Rahul will
save us from her husband, or Rahul's prospective bride will save
us from Rahul... Is that really the condition to which the
country will consciously consign itself?

The second set she has shown up are the old, scheming little
calculators - V.P. Singh and the rest. They are astir again. Has
he gone honkers?, a friend asked, as he read V.P. Singh's
statement exempting Sonia from having to answer any question
about Bofors. Not at all. He was. as usual, preparing
rationalisations for the next manoeuvre, the grounds for teaming
up with the Congress after the elections. Anticipatory
calculation, not senility.

Nor is he alone. I am willing, Jyoti Basu keeps saying. we will
look at the issue of associating with the Congress afresh. he
says. And people who have formed such a high opinion of him are
embarrassed that he should be announcing his availability so
brazenly. He can be expecting that his Left Front - with a
minuscule number in the last Lok Sabha - can get the numbers to
form a government, why is he behaving this way, they ask?
Calculation, again: May be the House will be hung again, some
theoreticians will be reasoning, may be the Congress will need
the Left MPs to make up the numbers may be she will not mind
putting our man in office, after all he is not going to be in
anyone's way for long...

How comfortable a Laloo having to shield a Rana - is certain to
feel behind her having a Quattrocchi to shield. And '
correspondingly, what advantages they will bring to her: With
Laloo, Mulayam and Kanshi Ram to direct their certificates to
her, she will have the halo, not just of keeping alight the torch
of martyrdom, but also of being the continuer of the commitment
to the forces of social justice. And won't they shepherd into
her corral the mediamen who have invested so much in these
pillars of secularism - a transferable herd it ever there was
one.

And the intellectuals. Today' papers carry a statement that asks
people to vote for the one candidate in their constituency who
has the best chance of defeating the BJP candidate. And to help
them do so, the signatories say they will be releasing a list of
five hundred of the most "winnable" candidates for the purpose.
Though little else, the statement did show two things. First,
that the ranks of these Casabiancas are much depleted: Apart from
four professional secularists, there was not a name worth any
attention. Second, the statement was released by none other than
Syed Shahabuddin! He - the very one who has played communal
politics as cynically as anyone in the past fifty years - he is
to certify which is the candidate secular enough to be preferred
to any and every BJP candidate! Some pass the poor secularists
have come. to. But for the moment the point is the future: This
is the very rationalisation which shall be used to legitimise any
and every combination should the BJP fall short of a clear
verdict in its favour.

Third, Sonia has shown the power of an advertising campaign to
sway - at the least the media.. That she should not address any
issue. That she should just hit, and run to the next meeting.
That she must not ever put herself in a situation in which she
may have to spell out her convictions, even her view on any
issue... Even the time at which to enter the fray: As she has
nothing to say, we can be certain that, given four or five
months, she will be relegated to the inside pages; hence, do not
put display her for more than a few weeks:

There is, of course, the Italian precedent: of thrice refusing
the crown - she waited till the Congress had completely subsided,
she then had just to walk over it and it was her's. But it isn't
just the Roman example, it is the advertiser's hand. In the
short exposure. In seem. the potential of a new face, the way a
new face is used to sell soap: She is positioned as the heir of
the "Nehru-Gandhi" legacy, but she is a new face - so she is
distanced from the ghastly bits in the legacy. Thus. she can
talk of continuing the work of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv, and
simultaneously go on apologising for what they did! An
advertiser's triumph.

But the point is that not one of the persons who are. being
mentioned in the press as the ones behind her moves, not one of
them has the wit to plan such stratagems. Who are her advisers,
who are planning her moves?

And that leaves me fearful for the future: Are the people going
to hand the country - its defence, the location of missiles, the
positioning of our troops and planes. the details of our atomic
programme, decisions about fighting terrorism and secession - in
the hands of a person about whom they know absolutely nothing?
In the hands of person whose advisors, themselves concealed, have
themselves concluded that, to capture the country, nothing about
her should become known?

For make no mistake about that: She has demonstrated that she is
the Congress, that the Congress is nothing but her. And so, to
vote the Congress to power is to place power in her hands - that
would remain the case even if she, were to put some stepney in
office for a while.

(Arun Shourie is a well-known writer and columnist)


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