Arun Shouries Articles

Curiosity? Myopia? Servility? | May 26, 2008

Arun Shourie
Sonia 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 confronting 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 (operation) Blue-star” – this, when all she had said was that those things should 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 many 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-�-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 addressed 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 if 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 Casablancas 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. 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 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.

Asian Age
February 13, 1998

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