By maintaining its silence about how much public money has been spent on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels, the Congress is walking into Narendra Modi’s cleverly set trap.
The figure appears utterly absurd: Rs.1,880 crore spent on Gandhi’s foreign trips over the last three years. That’s Rs.1.7 crore per day. But this is the allegation Narendra Modi has made, citing a newspaper report, and has stirred up a political storm. The report claimed that the figure was given by the government in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application.
Since then, Ramesh Verma, the man who filed that application, has revealed that he has received no reply to his request for information. So no one has any idea what the true figure is. But this just seems to have enthused Modi even more. If the figure he quoted is not the right one, he has asked, then what is the actual amount of public money spent on Mrs. Gandhi’s trips? And if his figure is wrong, he has said, he is willing to apologise.
The Congress has responded angrily, saying the figure was “totally baseless”, and calling Modi a “fascist” (which is something the Gujarat chief minister should be used to being called by now). But the point is that Verma made his RTI request more than two years ago, and his application form has been bouncing about between the Prime Minister’s Office and several ministries ever since. He has not got an answer. And Sonia Gandhi, being a member of Parliament who holds the Cabinet rank as chairman of the National Advisory Council, is certainly a public servant, and the question, since it involved public money, is as valid as any that can be asked under the RTI Act.
But the Gandhis don’t answer questions. They never have. There was impenetrable mystery built around Rahul Gandhi’s education and career before he joined politics. Exactly what purpose it served is still not clear. Surely the people of India have the right to know an MP’s educational qualifications and work experience? And would it have mattered at all if Rahul Gandhi was not a graduate? (In fact, it has since come out that he is actually a postgraduate, and worked for several years in London in a management consultancy firm). Plus, the RTI Act has been tom-tommed at the slightest excuse by the Congress as one of the great achievements of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. But why does the RTI stop at the Gandhi family?
Trouble is, the more the government maintains its silence over a question of public interest (which certainly does not intrude into Sonia Gandhi’s private life, like what disease or condition she has been getting treated for), the more ammunition it gives to the opposition, especially a smart politician like Modi. Gandhi is supposed to be in Gujarat for the next few days, in the run-up to the state elections, but this question will be hanging in the air. It’s a trap that Modi has set, and the Congress seems to be walking into it, because no one dares to tell Gandhi that it’ll be far better if she asks the government to reply quickly (given the way this government is run, it is quite likely that Verma’s question will continue to be stonewalled till there is a go-ahead from 10 Janpath).
Doesn’t the party realize that this is just the sort of thing that spreads like wildfire at election time through the rumour mills. This absurd figure will get inflated as it passes from mouth to mouth, and who knows what sort of embellishments will be added? And Modi, being the sort of politician he is, has already done the damage. Even if the government releases a figure now, the BJP machinery in Gujarat will try to create the impression that the government fudged the figure, that’s why it took so long to make it public.
That high wall that Sonia Gandhi has erected around her family may well be able to maintain the “First Family” aura that surely works with a large mass of the electorate, but under attack from someone like Modi and his brand of storm-trooping politics, it could turn out to be a weakness.