Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often been mocked for his persistent refusal to speak on issues that warrant interventions at the highest level of government. It is a commentary on the potential consequences of the two Italian marines refusing to return to India for their trial on charges of killing two Indian fishermen on the high seas that he actually spoke on the subject in both the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. More to the point, he departed from his usual mealy-mouthed cautiousness and spoke sternly of “consequences for our relations with Italy” if the authorities in Rome persisted in violating a solemn assurance made by the government of India to the Supreme Court that the two accused would return to Kerala for their trial after the Christmas holidays.
The reason why the prime minister felt compelled to make an intervention, rather than leave it to the external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, is obvious. For the Congress, Italy has always been a touchy subject — at least ever since the Bofors scandal broke in Sweden in 1988. Those with memories will recall that businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi fled India (or, rather, was allowed to flee) in haste on the night of July 29-30, 1993, after the Swiss authorities had confirmed a Bofors trail to his bank accounts. And Quattrocchi was no ordinary Italian business representative of Snamprogetti; he was well-known in Delhi as a man who flaunted his social connection with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
What the Congress legitimately fears is that any murky controversy involving either Italy or even an Italian citizen has the potential of being viewed in the bazars of India as — what former BJP minister, Jaswant Singh, slyly called — an “Italian Job”. The allusion was, of course, to the cult film of a wonderfully-executed robbery of gold ingots. The 1989 election, which saw Rajiv Gandhi’s steamroller majority crumble, for example, witnessed the explosion of evocative ditties alluding to the then prime minister’s special relationship with his sasural. Indeed, it became customary for Italy to be dubbed as the “nation-in-law” and for the mythical ideal of a Ram rajya to be juxtaposed against the Congress’ Rome rajya.
To be fair, there is very little to suggest that Sonia Gandhi consciously played up her Italian origins. Even Tavleen Singh’s best-selling Durbar, which claims to provide a ringside view of Rajiv and Sonia from the time they were private citizens, doesn’t dwell on Sonia flaunting her Italian-ness. Indeed, after the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance was badly singed for her association with Quattrocchi, she has taken exceptional care to leave her national origins far behind and project herself as an Indian bahu, a person who has imbibed the culture, traditions and ethos of her husband’s family. I have personally heard innumerable anecdotes from European journalists and diplomats indicating that she has invariably replied in English when addressed in Italian. Sonia can’t do much about her accent, which continues to be decidedly Italian, but in everything else she has ensured that there is little overt traces of foreign-ness in her public persona.
It is this conscious attempt to Indianize herself that may explain why the ‘foreign origin’ issue has been carrying diminishing returns. In March 1999, the fact of her Italy-born status was certainly a factor behind her inability to muster the numbers to form a government after the Atal Behari Vajpayee government failed the floor test by a single vote. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that the reluctance of Mulayam Singh Yadav and even the wariness of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to endorse a Sonia-led government were in a large measure due to a larger national wariness over a “foreigner” occupying the top political job.
On her part, Sonia imbibed the lessons of the failure of 1999. Therefore, when she had the opportunity in May 2004 to become prime minister— despite Sushma Swaraj’s awesome threat to discard her hair in mourning — she allowed her “inner voice” to pass on the responsibility to Manmohan Singh. Today, Sonia remains the foremost political authority in both the Congress and the UPA government. Additionally, Sonia has a keen sense of political calculation that is inspired by her mother-in-law: her political distance from Rajiv is marked. Yet, it is precisely due to the fact that she was born an Italian citizen that she has been unable to translate her status as head of the Congress dynasty to a Constitutional position.
Acknowledging this does not, in any way, undermine her pre-eminence in the present political establishment. Nor does it diminish her responsibility for the overall performance of the UPA government. In the public imagination at least, both the successes and the failures of the UPA since 2004 are attributed to her. In the more cloistered world of the political class, this extends to the UPA’s dismal record in controlling corruption. Even the controversial business practices of her son-in-law, Robert Vadra, have been pinned on her indulgence.
However, being a step removed from the day-to-day grind of governance has enabled Sonia to establish a distinct political positioning. In fiscal terms, the UPA’s expansion of the welfare net may well be grossly irresponsible. However, her pro-active role in establishing the MNREGA and getting the proposed National Food Security Act passed has established her so-called ‘pro-poor’ credentials — something that appeals to Congress activists who believe in hand-outs as the route to electoral success. Although India is no longer a shortage economy bolstered by an inefficient public sector, Sonia stands out in the emerging market economy as the Lady Bountiful, doing ‘good works’ for the poor and the vulnerable.
If 2014 was going to be a ‘normal’ election with no apparent dominant theme and no star personality, this blend of Mother India and Mother Teresa may well have fulfilled the Congress’ desire to remain in the reckoning as the default party of India. Unfortunately, the slowdown of the economy, the well-publicized cases of mega corruption and the perceived sense of drift may well make the polls into something more significantly dramatic — especially if Narendra Modi emerges as the challenger. At this juncture, when the Congress appears so fragile and heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi presents himself as so uninspiring, the last thing the Congress would want is for some additional controversy to shake the first family.
The issue of the Italian marines, seen in isolation, would appear like an embarrassment. However, read with the investigations in Italy into the bribes given for the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters and the real estate greed of Vadra, there is every danger that the Gandhi family could suffer huge collateral damage. The mood in Italy is dead against any return of the absconding marines to India. But Indian national pride could equally come to the fore if New Delhi attempts a workable compromise solution. Already there are dark hints of a quid pro quo that would involve the Italian authorities going very slow on the inquiries into the bribes allegedly paid by AgustaWestland.
Most conspiracy theories can never be substantiated by hard evidence. However, electoral trials are based almost exclusively on perceptions. People, as Modi rightly pointed out in a different context last week, tend to forgive the lapses of a regime that is otherwise seen to provide good governance. The Congress cannot, at this juncture, hope for such generosity. On the contrary, the UPA may well be victim to the perverse habit of believing the worst of anyone who is down. Sonia has so far escaped this onrush of spite. But unless the government can resolve the present Italian muddle, the Congress president could well be its unintended victim.