Monday, October 08, 2012

Why is ‘First Family' a hush-hush affair?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was one of the most outstanding politicians of post-Independence. At a time when the Congress was the dominant party he, along with other stalwarts such as Acharya Kriplani, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Minoo Masani, contributed immeasurably towards keeping anti-Congressism alive. Lohia was a profound and original thinker but his fame rested on the notoriety he earned as an unrelenting agitator and oppositionist.

In 1963, Lohia moved the first and only no-confidence motion against the Government of Jawaharlal Nehru. In his robust and flamboyant intervention, Lohia argued that the average citizen of India lived on three annas (roughly 18 paise) a day—a sum he compared to the Rs 25,000 spent on the upkeep of the Prime Minister each day. Nehru, otherwise a great one for the thrust and parry of Parliament was both livid and exasperated. Replying to the debate, he charged the Honourable Member of lowering parliamentary discourse to the “level of the bazaar.”

In the Nehruvian Establishment of the day, which, naturally enough, included the print media, Lohia was debunked as a lowly demagogue and even a vulgarian, abuses that Lohia took as compliments. So intense was his hatred of everything Nehru stood for that when the Prime Minister died in May 1964 and was accorded a grand state funeral, Lohia intervened with a cutting remark: “Nehru left his jewels to his daughter and his ashes to the country.”

In a week that has witnessed breathless talk in a section of the Lutyens’ Delhi aristocracy over “bad taste” in politics, it is pertinent to re-open the Lohia debate. Did Lohia indeed lower the level of political discourse by rubbishing the Planning Commission’s figure of 15 annas as the average earning and positing a three-anna figure? More to the point, was he guilty of astonishing bad taste by juxtaposing this paltry sum with the Rs 25,000 (a considerable sum those days) spent by the taxpayer keeping Nehru in the style he was accustomed to? Remember, in those days debunking Nehru was almost akin to cheering a bowler who had just taken Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket. Were those who debunked Lohia doing so because his imagery was stark or were they doing so because he had dared question the sincerity of a man who could do no wrong?

There is a grey area of subjectivity we must necessarily enter to find a credible answer. Was Mamata Banerjee completely out of order when she mimicked the whispering indecisiveness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—also a decent and honourable man—during the course of a TV interview? More to the point, was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi being crude when he hollered the allegation that Rs 1,880 crore of taxpayers’ money had been spent on bankrolling the foreign visits of Sonia Gandhi whose only official position is Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, a body that has no locus standi in the Constitution?

It is always possible to see Modi’s intervention through the prism of TV talk shows. But frankly, whether the Gujarat leader wanted to use the dramatic revelation to trap the Congress into some tactical indiscretion is not a very interesting angle. Nor is the air cleared by the revelation that a Central Information Commissioner had ruled last May during the course of a RTI hearing that Sonia Gandhi had submitted no medical bills relating to her month-long treatment at some unknown hospital overseas. Having made this the official version, it will be difficult for the Government to renege on this position. In this age of openness, cover-ups can be very messy.

There was always an official cost to every foreign visit undertaken by the Congress President in the past eight years. If it wasn’t Rs 1,880 crore or Rs 235 crore annually, as the press report Modi quoted, what was it?

Even if the medical treatment was free or paid for by either the family or some unnamed benefactor, the fact is that the Congress President is always accompanied by a large SPG entourage whose air tickets, hotel bills and daily allowances have to be paid for by the government. How much did that cost?

There is a larger question at stake here which goes beyond Modi and the Gujarat Assembly election. Does the citizenry of India have the right to know how much public money is being spent on individual leaders, purely as a matter of information? Or, as Nehru perhaps imagined, is asking the question in the first place indicative of insolence? Will it also be construed as an unwarranted invasion of privacy if someone asks: who paid?

When it comes to the ‘first family’ there is a spectacular degree of non-questioning. No one asks why the Home Minister, the Defence Minister and even the Prime Minister are forced to undertake visits so that one special passenger can be accommodated and the official bandobast made? Why does this passenger carrying facility also extend to the backbench MP for Amethi? Why does the Congress President never offer herself for a non-scripted interaction with the media? Why is everything relating to that family such a big secret? After all, they are not private individuals but public figures.

Lohia made a nuisance of himself by asking impertinent questions that others were too inhibited or too frightened to ask. Isn’t it time India produced many more Lohias?

Sunday Pioneer, October 7, 2012

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