India Controversy

10.05.12

The Absurd Case Against Sonia Gandhi

New accusations from rivals claim travel expenses that defy even simple math. Of all the murky dealings tied to the political heiress, why the fuss over numbers so illogical?

The astonishing thing is, there’s so much to hold the lady accountable for. What did she do to punish party colleagues who led mobs in massacring Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was assassinated? Will her party ever get over its obsession with her family—or is it just the name? Or are we forever to be blighted with dynasty? When do we get the truth about the Bofors gun scam of the 1980s, which named the then–prime minister, her husband?

There’s more, too, about Sonia Gandhi, chief of India’s Congress party. Yet come election time, her political opponents prefer to whack quite different horses. Like now, when the state of Gujarat is gearing up to vote in December. Its chief minister had Gandhi in his sights at an election rally the other day. Over three years, pronounced Narendra Modi, her trips to foreign lands for medical reasons cost taxpayers 18.8 billion rupees ($360 million at current exchange rates).

This stunning figure immediately got Modi’s fans atwitter. Something about Gandhi gets under these folks’ thin skins. Now here was a juicy cocktail: a vast sum of money, apparently public money; Gandhi goes abroad for treatment—and what’s that about anyway? India not good enough for Her Highness?

It was like throwing a pack of ravenous dogs a side of raw meat.

It was also another entry in the continuing effort to damn Gandhi for her “foreign origins,” in pursuit of which any foreign connection at all helps no end. When she ran for Parliament in 2004, her political opponents, Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party most of all, couldn’t stop talking about her birth in Italy. That she had since become an Indian citizen made no difference. If Italy and India went to war, they asked with straight faces, where would the lady’s loyalties lie? Prime Minister Vajpayee himself couldn’t resist the temptation. Many people, he said in his election stump speeches, were concerned about the national-security implications of Gandhi winning her seat and becoming prime minister herself.

Gandhi, he meant to insinuate, was not Indian enough to serve Indians and run the country. Which raises the question: what kind of service to the country have Indian-born leaders, Vajpayee included, rendered? Why, for example, are poverty and corruption, poor health and illiteracy, so stubbornly endemic?

More recently, Gandhi visited the U.S. for medical treatment. That attracted outrage, too. “Are Indian doctors incompetent to treat her?” asked plenty of angry detractors during one of her visits last year. It’s a question that stands up to no logical scrutiny, not that it matters to such people.

After all, while he was prime minister, the same Vajpayee needed his knees replaced. The surgery was done by Dr. Chitranjan Ranawat, an Indian who had called New York home for many years. In fact, he first examined Vajpayee at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Should Ranawat, or we ourselves, have asked Vajpayee: “Are the doctors in India incompetent to treat you?”

It’s an absurd question, yet somehow a fine one to fling at Sonia Gandhi.

Today, the bile has found new vigor—via Modi’s claim of 18.8 billion rupees.

Where do I start, cataloging all that’s perverted about this claim?

For one thing, Modi said it was based on a Right to Information (RTI) application an activist from the northern town of Hisar filed in 2010. Only, the bewildered activist told the press: “I never got any such information from the RTI [query] I had filed. I have not got any [such] figure.”

That is, he hasn’t had a response to his query for more than two years—in itself, yet another reason to question Gandhi. Via some other inquiries he made, he said, he came up with a figure of 8.5 million rupees—in itself, a large enough amount to deserve an explanation from Gandhi.

But instead, Modi offers a number that’s inflated over 2,000 times.

For a second thing, 18.8 billion rupees over three years is—how do I put it?—a nonsensical figure. Consider it this way. Assume Gandhi flew first class to and from the U.S.—take $8,000 for that—and stayed for 15 days each time in a suite priced at $10,000 a night. (Maybe the Waldorf-Astoria?) At those rates, 18.8 billion rupees would buy the ailing Sonia Gandhi more than 2,000 such trips. In three years. Right.

I mean, you factor in her security detail and anything else you want; it’s still impossible to make sense of that 18.8 billion–rupee claim.

Unless you see it for what it is: another stick to whack that horse with.

For a third, the day after Modi used the stick, another activist popped up to say she has spent five years waiting for a reply to a RTI query about ... Modi’s expenses when he traveled to 27 different meetings. Because she got no reply, she, like the Hisar man, made some other inquiries too. She got this reply from Modi’s Gujarat government: “As far as traveling expense of the chief minister is concerned, consider that as nil.”

Nil.

Of such stuff is made the man who wants others’ travel expenses explained.

You factor in her security detail and anything else you want; it’s still impossible to make sense of that 18.8 billion–rupee claim.

So why fire off an absurd figure, instead of asking Gandhi about the skeletons in her closet? Because skeletons are found in her opponents’ closets, too. Massacre? The BJP and friends have enough that taints them, in the killings in Mumbai in 1992–93 and Gujarat in 2002. Dynasty? Yadav, Thackeray, Gowda, Pawar, Mahajan, Chautala: these are some names you’d find in a directory of Indian political dynasties.

So why did Modi do it, anyway? Here’s my guess. It’s just over a month since the conviction of Maya Kodnani for her part in leading a massacre of 90 people in 2002. Not only did Modi later appoint her minister in his cabinet, he did so knowing she was guilty. After all, in 2009, his own government affirmed in court that she was “the leader of the mob,” “was instigating the mob,” and “was playing the main role” in the massacre.

Given that, voters might ask uncomfortable questions about Kodnani. Like, if you knew she was guilty, why did you appoint her minister?

Can’t have that. Must divert their attention to other things. Throw them a senseless claim about Sonia Gandhi. Get the faithful riled up and loud.

Kodnani? Consider that as nil.