What is Sonia Maino Gandhi'smother'sname? Does she have sisters and brothers? Where are they and what are they doing? Each time a snippet of information flashes in the media about India'sruling family, the consequences for those making the disclosures are such that others shrivel up into silence. The lady herself goes travelling with a large retinue, and her close relatives spend much of the year in New Delhi, but there has been almost zero exposure of either her mother or Sonia'stwo sisters, with not even a photograph clicked.
Surely there should have been at least a few interviews done with them, but the reality is that Palaniappan Chidambaram is so effective in carrying out his actual responsibility?not promoting the economic development of India but protecting the ruling family?that none of the major media moguls dares to permit their editors or journalists to comment on the Congress empress and her kin. Indeed, they vie with each other to be her hangers-on, with one particular publisher in New Delhi taking pride in repeatedly being asked to do odd jobs for the lady. As a reward for such services, the publisher gets to take tea with ?Madame? around every six months, a blessing that is proudly advertised by the blessed individual to the minions working in the newspaper. Except for staged ?interviews?, where questions are given weeks in advance so that answers can be memorised, the individual who directs the functioning of the UPA government avoids any encounter with the media except from the far distance of a platform where she mouths the lines given to her by her advisors. And this in a country known for its knowledge industry.
It is well known that Indira Gandhi purchased a Mehrauli farmhouse. Today, this property must be worth several millions of dollars, forget rupees. But not if one peers at the returns submitted by Sonia Maino Gandhi to the Election Commissioners, who have apparently accepted the value given to them of this and other assets held by Sonia. Those who see her abroad and take photographs, who see the dazzling array of clothes and jewellery that she wears on such occasions, would be a trifle surprised at the sworn declaration that the lady has less than $500 as spending money. It would be an easy matter to locate and value the farmhouse. It would be an easy matter to find out where Sonia'sfamily stays while in their home country and continent, or the places they shop in, and the items the Merry Mainos buy from income that has obviously not come because of professional qualifications or inheritance.
Fortunately, folks in the West are not as scared of negative consequences as citizens of pizza republics such as India, and they will talk, if only someone asks. Whether it is the antique and jewellery dealers in New Delhi and Mumbai or the known providors of other types of merchandise, the self-proclaimed poverty of the fount of Maino riches would be regarded as ludicrous. But there are no enquiries made at these outlets by the representatives of the ?free? Indian media. Nor do journalists enquire at other locations, such as a certain 5-star discotheque in New Delhi, where too habitues and staff could give an interesting account of the revels of India'smasters. Several members of the Fourth Estate are aware of such practices, but again, the Sicilian law of ?omerta? (silence) is maintained.
Chidambaram has boosted the teeth of his departments so effectively that protest would be hazardous to financial health. Indeed, even the Left parties remain silent, so that even the cherished Standard Deduction can be affected, one of the many citizen-unfriendly steps taken by the Neo-Nehruvian UPA. The media in India may be as silent as a pack of terrified mice when it comes to Sonia'sfamily, but they roar when it comes to the rights of Afzal Guru, the Pakistan-controlled individual who sought to kill as many MPs as he could. Each day there is saturation coverage of the individuals who want this ?star? of the ISI to go scot-free. Even President Dr Kalam has time for his family, while thus far not being able to spare a few minutes in his schedule to meet with the family members of the security personnel who were killed that December day by Afzal'sfriends. The numerous media outlets in the country have been carrying a daily diet of news and images of such defenders of Indian integrity as Yasin Malik and the man whom the Indian courts found to be guiltless in the abetment of terrorism, even though he has made no secret of his views on just where the Indian state should be consigned. Fawning publicity is given in profusion to precisely those who are traitors to the Indian state and who wish to consign the Indian people to the hell. We saw this some years ago, when a television channel beamed live across the nation the supplications of the country'stop editors before Pervez Musharraf, a man who has spent the greater part of his career seeking to destroy India, the rest being devoted to keeping the people of his own country in bondage to a rapacious army that today controls much of the mechanism of the state.
After the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998 (and before Pervez Musharraf complained to Dileep Padgaonkar about him) this columnist wrote in the front page of the Times of India that any US sanctions would be a fleabite. This was printed on the same day that the Economic Times predicted a ?meltdown? in the Indian economy because of the post-test sanctions. In a few days, several commentators poked fun at this columnist for his ?naivete? in ?assuming? that US sanctions would be less than fatal. After all, in 1995, a senior Union Cabinet Minister had gone screaming to the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that a nuclear test would?surprise, surprise?lead to a ?meltdown? in the economy and that consequently he would have to quit were the test to take place. Rao himself told this columnist that it was this threat by his cabinet colleague to resign that stopped him from agreeing to a nuclear test. Has there been an investigation by our media into just who were the individuals who talked Narasimha Rao out of testing a nuclear weapon in 1995, a year when the intransigence of Pakistan and the daily moralising (on behalf of the terrorists) by the US and the EU had become unbearable for him? No, for the simple reason that any such enquiry would fall foul of the ground rules set by Palaniappan Chidambaram and Priyaranjan Das Munshi for the ?free? media in this country. And thus we go on our way, not being told?to cite just one example?exactly what favoured son-in-law put pressure on the state government in Haryana to gift thousands of acres of farmland to a private conglomerate for an SEZ. By all means set up an SEZ, but do so through the market,not through goodwill secured by various means from a single family. Naturally, none from the media have questioned Sonia Gandhi about the disconnect between the gifting of so much land by so many of her minions across the country to so few and her public declarations condemning this very set of actions, and this silence notwithstanding the knowledge that these are days when Motilal Vora has much more say in governmental decisions than Manmohan Singh.
Tirumala is one of the most sacred shrines of the majority community in India, yet few have bothered to enquire about the individual who has been hand-picked by Chief Minister Rajshekhar Reddy to head the trust administering the devaswom. Is it or is it not a fact that the new nominee is an atheist who has several times expressed his views about the ?black stone? nestling within the seven hills? Yet why is it that thus far there has been no report about the new TTD chief?
Why is it that the media see nothing incongrous in an anti-religious follower of Karl Marx administering temples in Kerala or indeed in the fact that Hindu temples alone are under the control of the state in ?secular? India? Why should this be so? Why is there only amusement, only scorn and not sympathy and understanding for a West Bengal minister who admits that he believes in the religion that he was born into? Is it something laughable to have such a belief? It would be a simple matter to tape-record the speeches of proselytisers across India as they rant about the customs of the faith followed by the majority in India, but thus far, this derogatory stream of abuse is not seen as provocative, only the sometimes strong reaction to it.
Surely secularism means that the followers of every faith should be treated at par, and not given the Arjun Singh treatment, which is to discriminate against the majority community? And yet, such a double standard is seen in the media in India as ?balanced reporting?. Small wonder that the security personnel who sacrificed their lives to protect Parliament are forgotten, while Afzal Guru is lionised. Small wonder that no one asks Mehbooba Mufti about the condition of minorities in Kashmir, when she brings up the Gujarat riots time and time again. A very strange ?secularism? this, a bias against an ancient religion that poses as rationalism and moderation. India has got a media in the image of her rulers, but one that in no way represents the people who together are getting over the handicap of a state structure still colonial in its ethos and in its approach.
(The writer is a former editor of the Mathrubhumi and Times of India.)