The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Absence, presence and in between

The front page of The Telegraph on Friday, March 24 carried a colour picture. A black-and-white version of that photograph is printed with this article. The picture is remarkable not only because of its composition and its framing but also because of the fact that the subject of the picture is absent from it. The absence may have been created by the cropping of the picture at the editing table or by the photographer himself when he actually took it. Those factors need not detain us here since, as it stands, the photograph can be read in a particular way and imbued with a certain significance.

A photograph, as John Berger, the art critic, has noted, 'whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its very nature refers to what is not seen'. The reference point of this picture is Sonia Gandhi who is not in it. In the picture, to the viewer's right is Rahul Gandhi, in a gleaming white kurta-pajama, the Congress politician's hallmark, looking intently to his right. And to viewer's left, there is Priyanka Gandhi, looking out through a door that is ajar. Both of them seem oblivious that they have been caught on camera. What are they looking at' To answer this, it is necessary to give to the photograph a context, to place it in time and space.

They are looking at their mother, Sonia Gandhi, making a speech, perhaps the second most important public statement of her life. She is making the announcement that she is resigning from the Lok Sabha. The importance of this speech, just in terms of the picture, is indicated by the presence of Rahul Gandhi, who is standing a little distance away from his mother. His presence is not a coincidence. Neither is the fact that his sister is also listening to their mother's speech from inside the house. Priyanka has not made a public appearance to hear her mother or to be next to her, but she is not entirely cut off from the momentous event. Yet, this is by no means a family picture or a family occasion. It is a public event with political ramifications.

The leader of the Congress ' the self-confessed bearer of a torch lit by her mother-in-law and her husband ' is resigning from the post to which she was elected by a huge popular mandate. Ostensibly, the reasons are sentimental. She has been hurt, she said in her speech, that some people had suggested that parliament had been adjourned sine die solely to protect her from being disqualified for holding an office of profit. She reiterates for her critics and for the people of India that she is not in politics to gain access to power and office. She is in politics to uphold certain values that she has inherited from her husband and her mother-in-law. It is a reiteration because she had made the same point even more forcefully when she refused to be prime minister.

But all this is outside the frame of the picture; it merely gives the picture a context. Once the context is known, the picture begins to acquire a different kind of significance. Sonia Gandhi is making a political announcement and also a statement of her political values. The idiom might be personal, but the political content of what she is saying is undeniable as are the political consequences. Yet no established Congress politician is anywhere close to her: nobody, not even the prime minister or those who claim to be her political advisors. The picture is testimony that while making this particular statement, even though it affects the Congress, she has chosen to distance herself from her own party. (It can be added, although it is extraneous for the reading of this picture, that, according to reports, the Congress leadership was not even aware till a little before the actual announcement that the president of the party was resigning from the Lok Sabha.)

The camera seems to confirm those reports, albeit somewhat indirectly, since it shows that no Congress leader was present with Sonia Gandhi when she made the statement ' a moment that the picture froze in time. It would be na've to assume that the presence of Rahul Gandhi was not deliberate. Even the fact that he would stand a little apart, near enough but not really close, may have been pre-meditated. But even without going into the intentionality or the lack of it, Rahul Gandhi's presence and position in the picture are not without meaning.

When Sonia Gandhi refused the prime ministership offered to her on a platter she said, harking back to a phrase used by Mahatma Gandhi, that she had listened to her 'inner voice'. The dictates of this voice had been fortified by discussions with her son and daughter, because we have it on the authority of Rahul Gandhi that many weeks before the actual event, she had decided that she would not accept the prime ministership. Rahul Gandhi's evidence only confirms the common, and entirely justified assumption, that Sonia Gandhi and her children are very close, which is as it should be. Yet, when Sonia Gandhi surprised everybody with the announcement that she did not want to be prime minister, her children were nowhere on the scene, or, for purposes of the present analysis, not in the picture.

Things are different, as this picture records, during the announcement of the second act of renunciation and the reiteration of the importance of values over office. This time Rahul Gandhi is on the spot with his mother. The emphasis is clear: he is with his mother not only when she is announcing her decision but also as a co-sharer in the values she is formulating as her creed. A public event has also become a personal-family statement. The presence of Rahul Gandhi, as captured in the picture, seems to convey the message, 'We Gandhi-Nehrus are different even though we are members of the Congress. We set the standards for the party and the nation and have done so down the generations.' The camera, by moving from Sonia to Rahul, seems to capture that movement across generations.

Priyanka's almost peeping presence completes the picture. She is poised ambiguously, indoors but looking out. The door to the public arena, in which her mother and her brother stand, is ajar. The future beckons. Maybe it doesn't.

A picture says many things. Maybe it doesn't.

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