Saturday 15 May 1999

India First (Rediff)

As predicted, President Kocheril Raman Narayanan gave sanction to the Vajpayee government to prosecute Madhavsinh Solanki, one of the many involved in ensuring that the guilty escape the Bofors net. Rather than blame the President of India for a seven-week delay in approving the prosecution, a finger needs to be pointed at a government that waited eleven months before asking for sanction. Indeed, even today the Vajpayee government is not taking steps against Gopi Arora and Sarla Grewal, two others deeply involved in the decisions associated with Bofors. The case of Gopi Arora is inexplicable unless one factors in the fact of his having numerous friends in diplomatic and official circles.

Should the Vajpayee government prosecute Gopi Arora, it is to be hoped that both he as well as former defence secretary S K Bhatnagar will not hesitate to reveal the truth. Should both come clean, they should be treated with leniency, as the goal should be to ascertain who were the actual beneficiaries of Bofors, rather than just the minions who rubber-stamped whatever was put in front of them. Both Arora and Bhatnagar will redeem themselves if they were to tell the whole truth about the decision to switch from the French gun to the Swedish. That is, if the Vajpayee government actually files chargesheets against them, and gets them arrested. Both in Delhi as well as in London, there are powerful individuals against such a course.

A list of the journalists and officials who have been given jobs, assignments and scholarship -- for themselves and their family members -- by the many government-funded trusts controlled by the Maino family will be instructive. This will indicate the depth of the reach of the family into the core of the decision-taking apparatus in India, and why newspaper editors (to the satisfaction of their proprietors) are so hesitant to uncover the facts about India's most powerful family: Predebon Maino, her three daughters and her two grandchildren from the Indian son-in-law. Not their assets around the world, nor details about their lifestyles or their travels.

To take just one example, Priyanka Vadra is much more often seen at 'watering holes' of the elite Delhi circuit than she is in orphanages. Many are the editors who have bumped into the young lady at such places, and yet such sightings are NEVER written about. Just as the "free" press in India has not mentioned the whereabouts of Rahul, Indian citizens can be pardoned for not being aware that he spends more time in Europe and the United States than in India. At whose cost, no one is told. Unlike Priyanka, who for example was given a handsome fee by a Japanese association in exchange for her 'expertise' on the Nehru family, Rahul has not so far been occupied as an authority on his father's branch. As he seldom talks to his Indian relatives, preferring to spend time with the Italian ones, this is no surprise.

In a truly democratic country, much would have been written about the Sunday brunches at Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's official residence, how the guests at these intimate affairs were drawn from diplomats and visitors, with Indians largely excluded. The phone bills of Sonia Maino would have been made public. However, thanks to an indulgent government, the lady goes undisturbed even in the various state-funded organisations that she and her family control. The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, for example, has yet to submit properly audited accounts for several expenditures to the Government of India.

However as (in effect) a No Objection Certificate is needed from Sonia before any Indian official gets appointed to an international organisation, any number of obliging officials are quietly working to ensure that the institutions remain covered in secrecy. India is the one country where an individual often sells the national interest in order to get a job at the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Those seconded to these and other UN-affiliated bodies usually defend alien interests rather than New Delhi's. Indeed, they appear every now and then in India as spokesmen for such interests.

Not that they can be blamed. From the choice of Louis Mountbatten as India's first Governor-General, the Nehru culture has been to subtly denigrate Indian culture and traditions, and make a selection only from European alternatives. These were seldom mainstream options, as Jawaharlal preferred esoteric versions such as Fabian socialism or Leninism. He ensured that advice from both stunted Indian industry and spawned a huge army of babus on the USSR model. Today, it is in the fitness of things that the CPI and the CPM are working hard to ensure that the Nehru heir, Sonia Maino, becomes prime minister of India. Only Sonia can revert India to the Nehru days, away from the freedoms introduced in the Narasimha Rao period.

Any visitor to 10 Janpath will be able to grasp the nuances of Sonia's style of governance. For hours each day, Arjun Singh waits outside her room, in the anteroom occupied by V George. On some days, the curtains get parted and Singh can actually behold the object of his adoration, seated on a sofa inside. Very rarely, she speaks a few words to him, either scolding him for some plot gone wrong, or patting him on the back for a success. On those days, Arjun Singh is ten feet tall. He strides into the AICC and barks out orders, with the glow of Sonia speak surrounding him.

The entire episode that saw the fall of the Vajpayee government and the sabotage of an alternative Sonia regime was marked by the absence of consultation with the Congress Parliamentary Board and the Working Committee. In this, Sonia was following the Nehru model, of seeing subordinates as kitchen staff, to be given orders to rather than consulted. In 1984, after the death of Indira Gandhi, President Zail Singh was ordered to fly back to India and install Rajiv as the new prime minister. These orders were transmitted by Arun Nehru and R K Dhawan to the President, who merely nodded in assent without giving any verbal reactions. Service staff are meant to be seen and not heard. Thus a pilot with zero governmental experience was made the head of the government.

Of course, he claimed credit for the 1984 sympathy wave, overlooking the fact that even Pranab Mukherjee would have got 400 seats in the fevered Lok Sabha polls that followed the killing of Indira Gandhi, just as a rudderless Congress got the full benefit of the (weaker) wave that followed the Rajiv assassination in 1991.

Had Sonia Gandhi called a Working Committee meeting, she would have faced no problem. In the meetings of this august body, it is not very long before Arjun Singh shouts out "Let's leave it to Madam". At this, there is pandemonium as the others scramble to say "Yes, Yes," to this brilliant idea. After the "Empower Sonia" resolution gets passed, the tension eases. Members of the CWC crack jokes about P V Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. Some may even say a few uncomplimentary things about the BJP. Others speak about how Sonia is just like the other Madam, Indira Gandhi. At this, someone may protest: "No, our Soniaji is even better", at which cries of approval will rend the air and the new Madam smile at her "advisers".

Had President Narayanan sworn in a Sonia government, it would have been one dominated by the Maino family. No existing Indian leader in the Congress dares to even look in her direction these days. In towns across Italy, the expectation is that the 600 million voters of India will soon make the Right Choice and install Sonia as prime minister of India. If the Congress tally crosses 180, this will become a near-certainty. If 220, then a certainty.

In this age of tribal loyalties, one cannot fault the Western media for ignoring Sonia's lack of formal education or the fact that her only 'qualification' is that she married Rajiv Gandhi three decades ago. Few write about the total absence of unrehearsed appearances, or the frightening fact that the Indian (and international) public do not know what her views on major issues are. That is, if she has any. No one mentions the dictatorial grip of the Maino family on what was once a political party. That would be letting down the tribe, and as the Western reporting on Kosovo has shown, the Western media are as "patriotic" as the Stalin press during 1929-52.

Clearly, standards for India have been pegged a wee bit lower than for Europe or North America, where any attempt to make an individual prime minister on the basis of marriage would have been rejected. Ask Dimitra Liani, the air hostess who married Andreas Papandreou of Greece, and who has now vanished into obscurity.

The ironic fact is that the private Sonia is actually a likeable person, warm and friendly to those she trusts. Had she remained out of public life, there would have been no reason to comment on her. But a prospective prime minister of India needs to come not just under the magnifying glass, but an electron microscope. This is what happens in mature democracies, and what would have taken place here, had there been a free press in India.

Unless the Congress party sheds its dynastic baggage, it will not survive. It is pathetic to watch the Ghulams (so aptly named) wail for Priyanka to stop her other activities and enter into the electoral fray. It is disconcerting to watch senior Congress leaders wait in the 10 Janpath anteroom for hours in the hope of catching Sonia (or Priyanka's) attention. Unless internal democracy returns in that party, it will atrophy.

Both Manmohan Singh and Sharad Pawar have the capacity to lead India. Their boss does not, as even they know. However, if the Congress gets enough seats, it is only Sonia who will come as prime minister, with Laloo holding one side of the apron and the CPI-CPM the other. The BJP is showing its capacity to respond to the future, by casting off its hardline agenda and by openly accepting the reality of coalitions. The Congress will need to cast away Dynasty if it is to survive. Those who point this out are not the enemies of the Congress. That position is reserved for those who wait in the 10 Janpath anteroom in the hope that the wind may shift the curtains enough for them to scurry out shouting, "I've seen Sonia!"

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