Quite a few years after Sonia Gandhi was seen and heard talking to a journalist of her choice — Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone is accused of picking his favourites for allegedly scripted interviews — she chose to appear at the India Today Conclave in Mumbai. Reminiscent of her interview in November 2016, she took no tough questions and revealed nothing one has not heard from her before. While she has addressed several rallies since she became the head of the Indian National Congress, she appeared for interviews with a select few journalists like Vir Sanghvi at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit while the UPA was in power and with Rajdeep Sardesai two years after the INC lost power. Does her selection of journalists not betray an elitist bias?
The reports of her latest appearance say she was “introspective” and that she admitted to her “shortcomings” in the course of the conversation. The only evidence of introspection came about when she said that her party needed to develop a new style of connecting with the people at the organisational level. She was, of course, humility personified when she mused, “Public speaking does not come naturally to me, that is why I was called a reader than a leader.” But, what if the questions that could make her uneasy were asked? How come this has never been attempted on television? The little journalistic integrity one observes in the profession — as much as cerebral content — is limited to the print. Given that the visual medium makes the viewer peep into the personality of a public figure also through her facial expressions, it is sad that the news channels are denying the people this opportunity. What follows in this article are questions that could make her visage change.
Staying clear of the blogosphere that goes through no editorial scrutiny, let us pick a serious magazine the leftists cannot take exception to, Frontline. Based on the story published in the journal in May 1998, why is Gandhi never asked to share the memories of her childhood? How was it in that era to be a young girl in Italy? Or, what is a family in Italy like? How similar to or different from an Indian family is it?That shouldn’t be awkward. However, as it happens to normal people, recalling the childhood makes one drop her guard. If that happened in the interview that has not yet taken place, she could be asked next how her family was impacted when her father Stephano Maino was taken as a prisoner of war. That would be succeeded by the query as to what changes the family noticed in him after he was released by the Russians.
It is expected that Gandhi’s sister and she experienced bouts of anxiety of social security. If television could make us believe that actress Deepika Padukone’s depression was a nationwide medical condition, the revelation from a far more important person could serve as a case study for psychiatrists who would, in turn, help parents raise vulnerable children with more sensitivity.
Then the interviewer should come to the part that changed the shape of this country. When Antonia-turned-Sonia (Edvige Albina Maino) drew close to Rajiv Gandhi, did the urge to get anchored in a well-established family play in her subconscious mind? After all, she had exclaimed to her parents over the phone that she had met with an “Indian prince”.
Wasn’t it uncommon for a student of spoken English to mingle with an undergraduate? The Cambridge campus, as much as Oxford, is known for snobs. How did a young Sonia break this class barrier?
Thereafter, since she had excused herself from the error in the mention of her educational qualification in an affidavit submitted to the Election Commission, the question can be skipped. However, as her son Rahul is the president of the oldest political party of the country now, the situation merits a wringer on St Stephen’s.
Rahul Gandhi had got admission into the prestigious college through a sports quota as a shooter while none had ever seen him active in the said sport. An embarrassed Rajiv had to withdraw his son from the college and send him abroad when the media — which used to show some spine those years — erupted in protest. There, much later, did he actually do an MPhil as Rahul Gandhi, or was he enrolled as Raul Vinci?
During the controversy — The New Indian Express has stuck to its story despite the threat issued by the INC to sue the media house and its reporter — neither Rahul nor Sonia ever clarified whether the certificate in the name of Raul Vinci was actually meant for Rahul Gandhi. Nevertheless, since great certificates do not necessarily make great leaders, the journalist might skip this part as well.
Now comes what film critic Rajiv Masand would call the really tough quiz. A Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats had alleged in her book that Rajiv Gandhi used to receive money from the Soviet spy agency Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) between 1971 and 1991. Does Sonia Gandhi deny the allegation? She hardly can. In response to the allegation, the agency issued a statement saying the payments were necessitated by a “Soviet ideological interest”.
For reasons known best to Modi or Subramanian Swamy — the website of the Janata Party while the latter headed it was full of details of the dubious life and times of the INC’s first family — Albats was never invited to India after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Progressive Alliance regained the government in 2014. If only the BJP had a killer instinct, the dynasty that rules the INC would be vanquished by now. Or, does the party ruling the country these days have its own skeletons in the closet, and that the idea of mutually assured destruction is holding it back? Anyway, the subject of this article is Sonia Gandhi; so, we return to her.
During the second government of the United Progressive Alliance, she never rose to speak against the series of corruption charges the dispensation of the time faced. Given that the whole party looked up to her for both leadership and inspiration, was it fair on her part to leave them to their fate? At a crucial juncture under the last regime, when Baba Ramdev had revolted, for example, while some of the top ministers of the then government rushed to receive him at the airport, Sonia disappeared into some unknown destination apparently for treatment of some disease she was — and still is — suffering from. What exactly is that disease, and why can’t she be treated in India? Why does no journalist ask her?
In quite a few All India Congress Committee meetings before Rahul replaced her as the president of the party, Sonia would leave mid-way citing reasons of ill-health. It seemed her medical condition was serious. Maybe it still is. Is that not why she retired from public life to hastily pass on the baton to a son known more for his fumbles, bloopers and gaffes?
A proud mother will obviously say that her son can take up the reins. But Rahul Gandhi hasn’t impressed in the period of more than a decade that he has been in public life. The INC has lost all elections under his charge. Before it won Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh had given a clear warning to the high command to keep away from his State.
The next inquest would make Rahul come across as sinister. Like the mother has an undisclosed medical destination, the son has an undisclosed hideout. The family or the party never tells the people where he had disappeared for 50 days at a stretch for once. In the latest instance, he disappeared from the scene when the INC was struggling in the Assembly elections in the Northeast. Isn’t such behaviour strange for the two personalities in public life?
If their party thought Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would be a better choice than her brother, Sonia reportedly comes in the way. Now, there are different theories that float around to rationalise what the mother does. One theory says that Indians or Hindus would accept Rahul, who is apparently a Hindu, but not Priyanka, who is married in a Christian family. The second theory is that her in-laws’ religion is not a problem; the charges against them are. The third, if false, must be set straight once and for all by Sonia Gandhi. That Priyanka suffers from a medical condition making her unfit for full-fledged politics. This is why her mother protects her from overexposure, and limits her appearances to the family’s assured constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi. Is it true? Why doesn’t anybody ask her (on camera)?
The last question: Given the fact that the INC has disintegrated whenever a non-Nehru-Gandhi took over the charge, “what is the future of the party after you, Sonia ji?”
After Rahul made a mess of an answer to an author’s question in Singapore recently, this interrogation has assumed pertinence again.