Indian Decade

Teflon Chips From Sonia Gandhi

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Indian Decade

Teflon Chips From Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi has long been immune from press scrutiny. But a string of scandals in India is changing that.

Sonia Gandhi has so far ensured that the story of her life gets told the way she wants it to be. Despite its boast of being free, the Indian media has so far declined to reveal details of Sonia's immediate family: her two sisters and her mother. No facts have come out about their education or income level, nor have any of their visits to India been reported on properly. A similar fog surrounds Sonia's time in Britain and her family in Italy. Indeed, a fairytale quality suffuses the reporting and the books written about her that seems at variance with her ruthlessness and familiarity with the greasy world of Indian politics.

Amazingly, the foreign media—which usually delights in tearing politicians to shreds—has followed the meek example of its Indian counterpart by refusing to investigate details about the ‘CP’ (short for Congress President, the moniker given her by the ruling party). Even internet postings on her seem to have been carefully edited, with several less than flattering accounts getting removed, perhaps by ‘accident’, before being replaced with fresh instalments of pulp.

But now, for the first time since she arrived in India as the daughter-in-law of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Teflon that has protected her from the usual scrutiny meted out to politicians in democracies seems to be coming off.

The first sign was the fall from grace of two journalists known to be very close to her—New Delhi TV's Barkha Dutt and the Hindustan Times Editor Vir Sanghvi. Both were outed in the ‘Radia Tapes,’ which recorded conversations between lobbyist Nira Radia and her contacts that suggested Radia was more than a little enthusiastic about ensuring that her friends got their money's worth from her lobbying efforts.

Since then, a politician known to be close to her, Suresh Kalmadi, has been disgraced for alleged ‘lapses’ over the spending of the huge amount of money set aside by the government for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Another politician in an allied political party, meanwhile, has been accused of causing a loss of $45 billion to the exchequer through the virtual gifting away of scarce spectrum to a handful of corporates. The diary in which he wrote down details of the cash payments made by him to other politicians has disappeared from view—much like businessman Hassan Ali Khan, who was apparently caught secreting away $8 billion in Swiss banks.

The paralysis that has afflicted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram in dealing with such elements seems to have convinced the public that these alleged wrongdoers have a protector more powerful than this governmental troika. The public sees only one person this could be—Sonia Gandhi.

While the print media are as usual silent (with a handful of honourable exceptions) the internet has been buzzing with reports about the travels to Dubai, London, the Maldives, Geneva and other locations of the Maino clan, who seem to be a perfect example of the Hindu Undivided Family. And in a departure from the previous 43 years of silence, broadcast media is carrying news on allegations made about Sonia and her sisters, including reports that they are far wealthier than the meagre income reported by the all-powerful CP in her election filings suggests.

While Congress Party leaders squirm, the reality is that such unaccustomed transparency in the media indicates that the cosy world of Indian politics, in which VVIPs look after each others' loot while professing opposition, is finally coming apart. Who knows—a few people might finally be jailed for the estimated $1.4 trillion of illegal funds stashed away by Indians (and their non-citizen relatives) in tax havens.

If so, it would mean that India is at last on the path to becoming a genuine democracy.