Judging by the television news that night, May 20, 2010, was a day like any other — marked by natural disaster (a cyclone predicted for Orissa), violent rebellion (the blowing up of railway tracks by Maoists in Bihar), political partisanship (the insistence by Mamata Banerjee that the Union railways minister would be of her party even if she soon moved, as she hoped, to become chief minister of West Bengal), and corruption in sport (fresh allegations of match-fixing, this time against Pakistani cricketers). The next morning, however, the newspapers had given top billing to a man who had not figured in the news the past 24 hours, or the past week, or even the past month. In fact, as page after page of that day’s newspaper indirectly and inadvertently reminded us, he had been dead a full 19 years. The reason that he was yet commanding much space was that he was once India’s prime minister, and, more importantly, was the husband of the most powerful Indian now living, the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance.
On this day, May 21, several pages of the daily newspaper were given over to printing the photograph, and extolling the virtues, of Rajiv Gandhi. A half-page advertisement taken out by the ministry of petroleum and natural gas printed a large portrait with the line: “Remembering Rajiv Gandhi and following his path….” The ministry of information and broadcasting went further — it paid for a full page, and in colour too. “Nation pays tribute to Rajiv Gandhi on his martyrdom day. Nation resolves to strengthen the spirit of unity,” ran (part of) the text. The text, however, ceded first place to the photograph of Rajiv Gandhi, which covered a large chunk of the page. Other half-page or full-page advertisements were taken out by (among others) the ministry of housing, the ministry of power, and the department of information technology. These were slightly more ecumenical in their worship — while a portrait of Rajiv Gandhi and an excerpt from his words dominated, smaller pictures of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi were also inserted, along with a picture of the minister in charge of the department.
These advertisements were paid for from the public purse, but without the consent or concurrence of the public. So far as I could tell, all the ministries that had taken out ads were, with only one exception, headed by Congressmen (or Congresswomen). The exception was also very partial — it pertained to the department of information technology, whose ad was dominated by a large portrait of Rajiv Gandhi, but which also contained photos of the three ministers in this ministry. Two of these are Congressmen. The third is not, but in view of the controversies he is currently embroiled in, he may not be entirely averse to being associated with a commemorative venture designed, above all, to please the head of his alliance.
The best, and perhaps only, way to understand these advertisements is that they are statements of loyalty and devotion on the part of men, and women, who owe their jobs to the wife of the man they were seeking to honour. The size of the advertisement may be taken as proportionate to the minister’s insecurity — the larger the ad, the more he or she feels the need to signal his or her devotion to the First Family of Indian politics. As for those ministries which chose not to take out any ads on that day, it must be that their ministers are completely secure in their jobs, or in their relationship with the Congress president. There is a third possibility — that they might simply have forgotten the significance, to their party, of May 21.
The advertisements were carried in the several English-language newspapers I subscribe to. They were also printed in Indian-language periodicals across the country (I saw them, for example, in the Kannada newspapers, and in the Bangalore edition of a Hindi newspaper). What did this collective exercise in political sycophancy cost the nation? A major national newspaper I checked with said a full-page colour advertisement would cost Rs 1.38 crore. However, by law, or custom, ads put out by government departments enjoy a substantial discount. Still, the fact that so many ads were taken, and in so many editions of so many newspapers, must mean that the aggregate cost would have been very substantial indeed. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that on May 21, 2010, perhaps Rs 60 or 70 crore were spent by the taxpayer — without his and her consent — on praising Rajiv Gandhi. Since the practice has been in place since 2005, the aggregate expenditure to date on this account is probably in excess of Rs 300 crore.
(By way of comparison, the pay-offs in the case of the Bofors gun were estimated to be $30 million, or Rs 130 crore. Consider how much press coverage that scandal received. On the other hand, this column may be the first assessment of the ongoing praising of Rajiv Gandhi at public expense.)
Even if the ministers’ admiration for Rajiv Gandhi was genuine, surely a better way of honouring his memory would be to more effectively and honestly implement the programmes that bear his name, rather than splurge so much cash on today’s newspaper, which is also tomorrow’s raddi.
I wonder if the ministers who sanctioned those ads thought of alternative, more constructive, and more enduring ways in which the money could have been spent. How many villages might the ministry of power have electrified had it chosen not to take out that full-page ad in colour? How many government schools could have been supplied computers by the department of information technology if the concerned ministers had been more secure of their position in party and government?
The ministers, or their party’s spokesmen, would most likely answer that the ads are merely recognition of a patriot who did service to the nation. Then, one should further ask, why is it that the government does not likewise commemorate the life and work of other (and arguably greater) patriots? B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday is never noticed in this manner by the government of India, nor that of Vallabhbhai Patel. There is a third example, which is even more telling. Six days after the Union ministers’ show of sycophancy at our expense, the nation marked — or should have marked — the death anniversary of a former prime minister who, as Rajiv Gandhi himself might have conceded, contributed far more to democracy and nation-building than any of his successors. However, so far as I could tell, no minister or ministry took out advertisements in national newspapers saluting the memory or legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Now the chairperson of the UPA never knew Jawaharlal Nehru. She might admire him, because of his work, but she does not have an immediate, tangible, personal connection with him. On the other hand, she had, by all accounts, a fabulously happy marriage to Rajiv Gandhi. And she remains devoted to his memory, a fact that the ministers seeking her favour well know. Hence the profusion of advertisements for the one, and the utter neglect of the other.
I cannot speak for Rajiv Gandhi, but having studied Nehru’s life and personality for very many years, I can confidently state that he would have been embarrassed by posthumous flattery at the taxpayer’s expense. For, despite its handful of billionaires, India remains a poor country. Despite its healthy foreign exchange reserves, the government of India operates at a large fiscal deficit (currently in excess of 10 per cent of the gross domestic product). It really cannot afford to throw crores and crores at assuaging the insecurities of individual ministers or indulging the vanity of a particular family.