India needs to know
THIS summer of India’s discontent not only shook the nation, it also dealt a body blow to its most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi. In August, Gandhi was whisked away to the US, ostensibly for surgery of what was believed to be an unspecified cancer.
A pall of silence fell over her, but when she returned to India in September, her Congress party, true to obsequious form, declared her ‘fighting fit’. On Nov 9 though, Gandhi cancelled her first public speech after her operation, instilling doubts about her recovery. Speculation is rampant that she will soon make way for her son, Rahul.
So is she hale or frail? Only a handful of people know. In her remarks of Nov 9, read out in absentia, she claimed credit for implementing India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act.
In her own case though, the government is fobbing off RTI inquiries. Inherently reclusive, Gandhi was thrust into the limelight after her husband’s assassination in 1991, but spurned public life until 1998, when she became president of the Congress. Still holding the post, she is now the longest-serving chief of the 126-year old party. Through a Machiavellian stratagem, considered by many to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of India’s constitution, she empowered herself to handpick the country’s prime minister, and dismiss him at will. Beholden to her thus, he seldom fails to acknowledge her supremacy.
During her month-long absence from India, key ministers sparred with each other, almost bringing down the government. When the cat is away, the mice will play. Upon her return to India, she cracked the whip. The belligerents duly fell in line. Such clout can cloud the sensibility to distinguish between personal rights and public duties.
At 79, Manmohan Singh is no spring chicken. He too has battled grave disease. Gandhi has clearly given serious thought to succession planning. Her son Rahul Gandhi’s role in the party is set to expand, although without an immediate ascension to premiership. A stopgap prime minister has purportedly been identified in Defence Minister A.K. Antony.
Gandhi put him in charge, in part, of party matters when she went abroad, and it was he who delivered her above-mentioned speech. In cabinet meetings, all understand that his is the voice of Gandhi.
Left in the lurch is Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a perennial prime ministerial aspirant. He is Gandhi’s go-to man for all problems, but with the crown she will trust him not. Unlike Singh or Antony, Mukherjee commands a significant following in the Congress. His pliancy is consequently called into question, and pliancy is a sine qua non for becoming India’s premier today. After all, whenever Rahul Gandhi deems himself ready, all unseemliness must be avoided for the coronation of the crown prince. Miffed, Mukherjee has made clear that he will retire if the sceptre is not handed to him next. Without his realpolitik, a Congress government could be expected to survive about as long as a fish out of water.
Such then are the momentous decisions pending on Gandhi. For seven years, a regent-like prime minister has filled the void, with Gandhi wielding de facto power. Even Bairam Khan could hold the Mughal fort for only four years, until Akbar came of age. Unlike Akbar, Rahul Gandhi is a reluctant prince. While his mother was in the pink of health, it appeared that he had time on his side, but the runway is fast receding.
India has seen many a dynasty. Since 1947, the Nehru-Gandhi family has reigned supreme. Jawaharlal Nehru would be astonished at what he has begot. A cult-like devotion has developed for the family. Fawning courtiers outdo one another in claims of its indispensability.
Even political adversaries come to pay obeisance. Riven by division, they appreciate the value of a paramount leader, who can keep the flock in line, and the public in thrall.
Most of India’s media too has toed the line that Gandhi’s health is her own business, with rare exceptions such as The Hindu, which has questioned why an omertà, a code of silence, is being enforced on Gandhi’s health.In a democracy of over a billion, is asking whether the foremost leader is fit to lead appropriate, or is it tantamount to heresy?
Gandhi manages a nation with increasing global heft, albeit with many ills. Doubtless she possesses numerous qualities, amongst them sensitivity for India’s poor, and an ability to listen. Even so, her own prime minister is ill-served by her lack of transparency. Family cronies mock him at every turn. Some label him an experiment, others cry for Rahul Gandhi to take over.
Keeping all comers guessing is a hallmark of rulers, and it is said of the Gandhis that they know how to rule. The prime minister is rendered vexed whether to take the hint and quit, or stay and endure the humiliation. When his patience gets exhausted, he hesitatingly meets the press to emphasise, impromptu, that he is no lame duck. His protestations only enhance the general impression of an isolated, hapless man. Many wonder why he, who has served his country with such integrity for so long, does not pack up his bags and leave the Congress to its shenanigans.
In plunging into public life, Gandhi must have known that there would be few walls of seclusion. She says she has given India the right to know. Well, then, India has the right to know about the condition of the current arbiter of its destiny.