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A SPECIAL MOMENT
- Sonia Gandhi spoke at an informal plenary at the UN

Sonia Gandhi did not address the United Nations general assembly on October 2 as commonly believed in India. Whoever told the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance that she was addressing the 62nd general assembly, which opened in New York on September 18, did her and the nation a disservice.

That she was misled into believing that she was addressing the general assembly on the morning of Gandhi Jayanti does not diminish the importance of what she was in the UN building for: observance of Gandhiji’s 138th birth anniversary as the “International Day of Non-violence” for the first time.

Neither did it deter the entire international community represented at the UN headquarters from handsomely acknowledging her as the upholder, on behalf of India that day, of the legacy of the Mahatma. When “an informal meeting of the plenary to observe the first International Day of Non-violence” held in the UN General Assembly Hall — that was what Gandhi actually addressed — ended and the UPA chairperson came out of the hall, a long line had already formed to greet her.

It would be no exaggeration to say that no one from India in recent years has been so profusely greeted within the UN premises in New York the way Gandhi was on October 2. The crowd that lined up to shake her hand surprised veterans of many general assembly sessions. So many people abruptly left the General Assembly Hall that there was difficulty in starting the formal meeting of the assembly for that day. The formal session had been scheduled for 10 am to follow the Non-violence Day meeting. Canada’s foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, who was listed as the first speaker for the general debate, was reduced to being a hapless spectator as his audience made up of general assembly delegates trooped out to be with Sonia Gandhi instead. Without doubt, it was a tribute to Gandhiji, but it was also a mark of respect for the person who brought the Mahatma’s unique message of non-violence to the world body that day with great dignity.

All the same, the episode raises serious questions about the way Sonia Gandhi’s public persona is managed by those who are supposed to guard and promote it. Such questions mattered less when she was only the Congress president when the Congress was in the opposition. Today, she is the unchallenged leader of the ruling coalition and is called upon in that capacity to represent India de facto as the most powerful person in the country and the final arbiter of the ruling alliance’s policies.

The day before she was at the UN, Sonia Gandhi spoke nostalgically about her visit to the United States of America six years ago. This writer covered her visit then: perhaps “covered” is the wrong word to use. In my experience then — and earlier in New Delhi — those who looked after Sonia Gandhi’s public persona did not allow journalists to cover her as coverage is conventionally understood in the traditions of journalism in the free world. It would be more appropriate to say that this writer and other journalists observed her visit.

The mishandling of Sonia Gandhi’s itinerary in New York this time — although it was glossed over by the success of her presence at the UN — showed that nothing had changed in six years. The questions raised by this predicament are all the more serious because much of this attitude among her minders has spilled over into the projection of Rahul Gandhi’s public persona as well. Sonia Gandhi decided not to be prime minister, but it is very likely that Rahul Gandhi may head an Indian government at some point in the future when the Congress is in power. Unless the ways of these minders change, he may well find himself in his father’s shoes when Rajiv Gandhi had to apologize to Australian indigenous peoples whom he referred to as “backward” in a speech there in 1986 as visiting prime minister.

Rajiv Gandhi and his speechwriters could be forgiven for using the politically incorrect expression because, unlike in Australia, there is no stigma attached to being “backward” in India in caste terms. In India, it has largely come to represent a social or economic predicament in the context of affirmative action designed precisely to eliminate backwardness.

But those who put into Sonia Gandhi’s speech in front of a global audience the confident opening assertion that “it is an honour to address the UN general assembly” have no such excuse. Especially when it was clear that everyone who mattered in the Indian government knew only too well that she was not addressing the general assembly. The day before Sonia Gandhi spoke on non-violence, it was the turn of the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to formally address the general assembly as head of the Indian delegation in the absence of the prime minister. In the very second paragraph of his speech, after the mandatory congratulations to the new president of the general assembly and promises of support during the president’s one-year tenure, Mukherjee explicitly said that he was looking forward to the “participation by Member States in the informal UN General Assembly Plenary and other functions being organized tomorrow at the UN to mark the first International Day of Non-violence”. In New Delhi, after Sonia Gandhi’s speech, South Block issued a press release saying that the UPA chairperson “addressed an informal plenary” meeting. For that matter, on the website of the Indian embassy in Washington, even the headline and the pointer to the transcript of Sonia Gandhi’s speech make it clear that she spoke at an informal meeting and not at a general assembly session. The Telegraph was the only Indian newspaper to state for the record — but only in passing without any explanation — that it was “an informal meeting of the plenary” that she addressed.

Lest anyone should think this is nitpicking, what is the difference' A plenary, by general definition, is a meeting that is attended by qualified members. That means all delegates to the general assembly are eligible to attend. Just as the general assembly session is open to the media, non-governmental organizations and distinguished visitors, so is the plenary. But an important difference is that the prime movers behind the plenary — in this case India’s Permanent Mission to the UN — have to pay rent for the General Assembly Hall, fees for hiring interpreters who do simultaneous translations into all UN languages of speeches made there and all other expenses for the meeting. Inquiries with the UN showed, however, that the Indian Mission thriftily arranged to start the meeting at 9.30 am, which is the time the interpreters arrive in any case. The UN’s business generally starts at that time: so the Mission did not have to pay rent either.

Perhaps the most important difference between an informal plenary and an official session of the general assembly is that the UN does not officially recognize or acknowledge anything that takes place at a meeting such as the one Sonia Gandhi addressed. It is not minuted and whatever is said or decided at an informal plenary does not become part of the UN agenda. The only record of an informal plenary is what is put out by the UN’s department of public information which tracks all events held in the UN headquarters.

At the end of extensive inquiries by this writer about such a hamhanded and avoidable faux pas during what was certainly a historic occasion for India, the needle of suspicion pointed to Anand Sharma, the minister of state for external affairs. According to senior South Block officials, just as he demanded and got exemption from pre-embarkation security check at airports in May after an ugly confrontation with the Central Industrial Security Force officials at Delhi airport, Sharma has appropriated Gandhiji for himself, buttressed by his professed connections with South Africa. Sharma, by all accounts, limited access to Sonia Gandhi in New York, eliminating any chance of fine but important distinctions on UN procedures being explained to her by officials. Because Sharma was the gatekeeper for the October 2 meeting from the start, neither the Indian Mission in New York nor South Block officials could contribute any input to Sonia Gandhi’s speech, although the Mission drafts scores of speeches for members of parliament from every political party who visit New York for the general assembly year after year.

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