25th January 1998

RAM or ROMA million dollar question

by Mervyn de Silva

Sonia Gandhi is the issue. No cause for surprise. Women have dominated South Asian politics, democratic and not so democratic. Sri Lanka produced the world's first woman prime minister. So much so the sub-continent's House of Parliament looked like Widows' Houses, a vague Shavian salute.

But this particular feminist intervention - Sonia Gandhi as the candidate of Jawaharlal Nehru's party, the party which has governed India for forty years or more is quite unique. Sonia was born in Italy, a perfect target for the nationalist B.J.P., the front-runner in this race. And so its deadliest slogan: RAM (India) or Rome (ROMA).

But the average Congress supporter thinks otherwise. Sonia Gandhi's decision to hit the campaign on behalf of the Congress party was described by an ecstatic Congress politician as the best Christmas-cum-New-Year gift that the party could have received.

The reaction of the BJP showed that its leadership was quite rattled by an intervention it had never anticipated. The BJP charged the official electronic media of "betraying a pro-Congress bias". In a letter to the chief election commissioner M. S. Gill, the party's Vice-President K. L. Sharma said the state-run media had violated the model code of conduct. "This further indicates that the loud claims being made by the newly formed Prasar Bharati Board to ensure an impartial and non-partisan coverage during the ensuing Lok Sabha elections are going to prove a sheer hoax". Observers in neighbouring countries will recognise the importance of a media, radio and TV which remain in the hands of the regime while the press is privately owned.

Sonia Gandhi, however, is the issue, though not all opposition parties and political analysts agree that the dramatic intervention of Rajiv Gandhi's widow has made the party of the Indian establishment unbeatable. "She is an untested missile. She may help enthuse Congress workers and give some strength to her party but it is a losing battle" says the all-India General Secretary of B. J. P. Pramod Mahajan. The metaphor is too close to the reality, especially to a problem that embarrasses the candidate.

Bofors scandal

A few days ago, Prime Minister I. K. Gujral himself decided the time was right to fire the same missile but more expertly. As Prime Minister Mr. Gujral would have had access to all the relevant documents. Besides he is no loose cannon. In his short spell, observers in neighbouring countries have come to admit his frankness and his exceptionally clear definition of India's regional policy. Even the Islamabad establishment, the political and the bureaucratic, admired his glasnost. On Tuesday he told an election rally in Hyderabad that the details relating to II year old scandal would be public knowledge soon.

"Who paid the money and to whom it went would be released soon. The 1.3 billion dollar artillery deal and the allegations have not upset Sonia Gandhi. She would be the happiest person when the information on this transaction is public knowledge, says Sonia Gandhi on election platforms across the country.

Italian Hand

The election campaigners of all parties, the BJP and the Congress parties most of all, could not ignore the issue after the Swiss authorities decided to hand over all the relevant documents, a change from the old rule that Swiss bankers don't talk. Somewhere down the line, the Swiss authorities decided to make an exception evidently. The ECONOMIST reported that the documents reveal payments up to 640 million Indian rupees by a Swedish arms dealer into various Swiss bank accounts. The ECONOMIST claimed that one of the accounts was held by Ottavio Quattrochi, a friend of the Gandhi family and the former representative in Delhi of an Italian chemicals firm, SNAMPROGETI. "Mr. Quattrochi says these were private business payments. However, he has cared to identify the nature of the transaction, and his links, if any with BOFORS.

It seem doubtful, concludes the journal's Delhi correspondent, that Sonia Gahndhi can influence the Bofors investigation at this stage. Politics inevitably limits the freedom of all the players in this widely publicised 'big Business" scandal which involved the ruling family. It is the general election of course that has taken the lid off. Some of the major participants find BOFORS first-rate ammunition. Already, the two major marxist parties, CPI (M) and the CPI which evidently see an increasingly important role for Sonia Gandhi, win or lose this time, have velcomed Sonia Gandhi's bold challenge - Release the documents, and let the people know the truth. Rajiv Gandhi's widow has revealed a talent for political manouevre which few political leaders and the media in Delhi suspected.

The Indian authorities have asked the British government to disclose the names of the holders of three Channel island accounts. The Indian inquiries have led the government to suspect that part of the 64 billion rupee pay-offs have been deposited in the Channel Island banks. "We have received a communication from the Indian government about certain accounts. The matter is under consideration". The Indian press published a despatch from A. K. Dhar, described as an investigative journalist, which described the British response as "tight-lipped." All that Home Ministry officials would say was "We cannot disclose details as these inquiries are all of a confidential nature"


The BJP may not prove strong enough to win an outright victory but students of South Asian politics in neighbouring countries would need to open a new file marked BJP. The BJP's main plank is its promise of stability. He denied that it is "Hindu extemist" "We are certainly not a Hindu version of the Congress".

Sri Lankan observers of the Indian political scene tend, not unnaturally, to focus on the "south", TAMILNADU especially. The BJP is trying to reach out to the South. We received only 2.7% support after decades of hard work," admits General Secretary, Pramod Mahajan. But Tamilnadu is a big state with about 40 seats. One of the parties, DMK in the state, is already linked to the United Front. So we had no choice but to align with Jayalalitha's AIDMK. However if there are serious charges against her, she must face these. Even if we win, there will be no concessions".

The DMK, the strongest in Tamilnadu is a partner in the grand alliance in Delhi, the UF. What will be the big picture in Delhi, if no party wins a clear victory? Every neighbour of India would watch the four-day polling (Feb. 16/March 7) and the ultimate outcome in the new Lok Sabha's composition.

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