If not Rs 1,880 crore, then how much was spent on Sonia?
By Tavleen Singh on October 7, 2012
Nobody is sure where Narendra Modi got his figure of Rs 1,880 crore from. The man from Hissar who filed an application under the Right to Information Act to find out how much Indian taxpayers have spent on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels has come forward to deny that he was given it. But, if the Congress’s leaders believe that ordinary Indians are not asking questions about who pays for Sonia Gandhi’s frequent excursions to mysterious hospitals abroad for the treatment of her even more mysterious health problems, then they are wrong.
The day after Narendra Modi produced the figure of Rs 1,880 crore at a public rally in Gujarat the Congress pulled out its most aggressive spokesmen to go on national television to denounce him as a liar. But, not even when TV anchors pressed them did any of these spokesmen reveal exactly how much has been spent on the travels of the Congress president who is also the chairman of the National Advisory Council. The Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Rajiv Shukla, was prepared only to state categorically (and a little too emphatically) that “not a single rupee” had been spent by the Government of India on the travels or treatment of Sonia Gandhi.
Is this a good enough answer? Not in the view of people I have met in political or apolitical circles of late. Not many people dare ask questions openly because of the fear that there is always retribution against those who dare to say anything that sounds even mildly critical of our democratically elected royal family. Recently, when I tweeted that The Economist in its latest issue has recommended that Indian voters ‘dump’ the Gandhis because “these people are hindering India’s progress not helping it”, I was inundated with a torrent of tweets that mostly said I was “very brave” to dare tweet such a thing.
As someone who publicly objected to India having an Italian Prime Minister, in the days when Sonia Gandhi was still unclear about whether she would take the job or not, I remember being regularly chided for being a ‘Sonia-baiter’. I never understood what this meant because from my limited understanding of the word ‘bait’ I associate it as something you use to lure fish. I was not fishing for a reaction from Sonia Gandhi, just making my own position clear.
It is because of this general fear of the Gandhi family that when Sonia Gandhi got sick last year and flew away to some foreign hospital for treatment no questions were asked not even by our usually aggressive opposition parties. So to this day we do not know where she went, what she was treated for or who paid the bills. On Delhi’s political grapevine there was inevitably a great deal of gossip. People said that she had gone to the Sloan Kettering hospital in New York that specialises in the treatment of cancer. People said a large tumour was removed from her pancreas and when she came back in ostensibly good health people said that it was not cancer but some other ailment of the pancreas that she had been treated for.
People asked many more questions but not openly. Everyone wanted to know whose private aeroplane she used on her travels and everyone wanted to know who paid her hospital bills and why she had not, as a patriotic ‘Indian’ politician, gone to an Indian hospital instead of flying off abroad.
These are valid questions. The health of the country’s most powerful political leader cannot be a secret. In other democratic countries when a political leader goes into hospital for treatment every last detail of his condition is made available to the public through daily bulletins by his doctors. Even the health of former Presidents is not kept secret. So when Bill Clinton had his heart operation there were diagrams of the procedure on CNN.
Another thing you may have noticed is that in other democratic countries leaders make sure that they are treated in hospitals in their own country by their own doctors because if the leader has no faith in the health facilities, that it is his responsibility to provide, then why should his countrymen have faith in it? When Sonia Gandhi chooses to go abroad almost every other month even for routine check-ups since her mysterious surgery, is she not showing a serious lack of faith in Indian healthcare? Should there not be a rule that Indian leaders use only Government hospitals when they get sick? And, if they insist on going abroad, as Sonia Gandhi did, does the public not have a right to know who paid the bills?
Nobody seems more afraid of the Gandhi family than the Indian media so ever since Narendra Modi announced his Rs 1,880 crore figure he has been reviled in the editorial columns of the newspapers for ‘baiting’ Sonia and, more puzzlingly, trying to drag her into a discussion. Assuming that this was his objective, should it not be considered a valid one? We are weeks away from elections to the Gujarat Assembly and judging from Sonia Gandhi’s record she has never pulled any punches in the past. Remember the charge she publicly made last time around that the Chief Minister was a merchant of death, a “maut ka saudagar”? So if this time he has drawn into his campaign a question about the cost of her foreign travels why should it be treated almost as if it were blasphemy?
The Indian media would have gone to town if some other political leader were flying off abroad on secretive excursions for mysterious health reasons. All sorts of questions would be asked and the health of the leader would remain in the headlines until they were satisfactorily answered. So why has the health of Sonia Gandhi and the treatment she is receiving been allowed to remain a mystery for so long?
Whenever I have asked colleagues in hackdom this question, the answer I have been given is that it is because we in the Indian media believe that political leaders have a right to privacy in such matters. It is not a good enough answer because the health of a public figure can never be a private matter since it affects the whole country. To make an exception for Sonia Gandhi was wrong and, now that Narendra Modi has raised the question, it is time to rectify things. There are questions that the Congress and the Government of India need to answer.