By Sunanda Vashisht on October 4, 2012
It is a controversy that shouldn’t have been. It is a question that should have been answered without any hullabaloo. It is a debate that should never happen in a democracy. Instead the farce has been playing for two days now with the arguments from Congress bordering on the realm of bizarre and outrageous.
Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, while addressing a rally, asked a simple question. How much money had been spent on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign trips? Citing a newspaper report in Jai Hind Daily, he pegged the amount at Rs 1,880 crore. This number was apparently disclosed in response to an RTI enquiry that was published by the newspaper on July 12th. As things unraveled, the gentleman who had filed the RTI application confirmed that he was yet to receive any answer from the Government. The newspaper editor said he had received the information from a news agency. As matters stand today we do not know where the 1,880 crore figure — that was published in the newspaper that Modi quoted from — was accessed. What we do know is that an RTI application about Sonia Gandhi’s travel expenses had been filed two years ago and the UPA Government is yet to furnish any details. Narendra Modi acknowledged that the figure that had been quoted by the newspaper could be wrong, in which case he would like the Government to correct him by providing actual numbers. The question of how much money was spent on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign trips between 2004 and 2012 and whether the money was spent from public exchequer remains completely legitimate and valid.
It is a simple question that the Congress should have been able to answer in a jiffy. After all, as elected Member of Parliament, chairperson of UPA and Chairperson of National Advisory Council, Sonia Gandhi’s foreign trips must be accounted for. Instead of furnishing the public with any documentation, Congress unleashed its trusted lieutenants Digvijaya Singh and Manish Tewari to create confusion where there was none. Digvijaya Singh’s response to Modi’s enquiry was that “He is an RSS functionary and was spreading false propaganda in the Nazi tradition”. While you take a moment to digest that mouthful (which, we might add, has nothing to do with the question at hand), another Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari took an equally bizarre stand. He said, “Modi owes an apology to Congress and the people of Gujarat for amplifying a lie and has taken the low road in politics.” The question was about Sonia Gandhi’s travel expenses and the answers we received were about everything but that.
It amazes me that Sonia Gandhi does not feel the need to answer the allegations against her directly. She could have immediately called a press conference or issued a press statement detailing if the money spent on her foreign trips was her personal money or from the public treasury. The debate would have been settled instantly. Instead in true Nehru-Gandhi family tradition, she sent her minions to speak on her behalf who just made matters worse.
The spectacle that has been playing in front of us actually points to a larger and much more worrying question — how safe and healthy is our democracy under the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi’s famous reticence and her refusal to speak to the press are now legendary. As chairperson of the ruling coalition, everyone knows that she runs the Government. As chairperson of National Advisory council, she determines the fate of our nation with the policies that her council members draft and recommend to the Government. Yet we have never ever heard her speak about anything of consequence. Her statements — few and far between — are read out by her spokespersons to the press. The meetings that she holds are out of bounds for reporters. No one knows what her thoughts are about economy, foreign relations, environment or anything at all for that matter. We have been told she favours populist schemes like NREGA, but she has never spoken about NREGA to anyone. We have been told that she favours the food security bill, but she has never convinced us why it is necessary and how she plans to pay for it. She has never spoken in the Parliament, never raised any concerns and never answered any questions. The only time we saw her in action in Parliament was when L K Advani called her Government illegal and she directed her party workers to create a ruckus and make a scene.
Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, our democracy has been stifled and is begging to breathe. Modern democracies rest on the twin towers of free speech and transparency. The UPA Government has muzzled free speech on more than one occasion. The latest being censorship of Internet in general and social media in particular. Transparency has taken a huge hit under her leadership too. The cloak of secrecy that has been wrapped around Sonia and her children is nothing less than tragic, especially for a large democracy like ours. She runs the country like a personal fiefdom where no one can question her and she feels she is answerable to none. Every time elections come close, she sets out on journeys to far-flung areas of the county, reads prepared speeches, answers no questions, and hurries back to her ivory tower. Everything about Sonia is speculation. And where there is speculation, there are rumours, and where there are rumours there is unrest. It is this unrest that we are seeing in the nation now. It is this unrest that gets translated into questions about her travel expenses; it is this unrest that translates into questions about her illness and the expenditure over her treatment.
Sonia Gandhi is entitled to her privacy, but there can be no secrecy around her travel expenses or her health. As chairperson of UPA and Member of Parliament she is answerable to the country. Those quoting security reasons for her silence should know that American Presidents are constantly under threat too and yet their travel records and health records are both in the public domain.
Sonia Gandhi has chosen studied silence over the scandals and scams that have rocked her Government till now. This is the first time that she has been asked a direct question. Failing to answer this will directly reflect on her integrity and the legitimacy of her claim to the leadership of her party and the nation. I hope she will not disappoint us. So it is over to you now, Mrs Gandhi.