Just outside India's Camelot: Character assassination by gossip


An excerpt from columnist Tavleen Singh's new book, Durbar, in this week's Open reads exactly like what it is: Character assassination by gossip.

In a much-belated portrait of life just-outside India's Camelot, Singh rehashes ancient slams on Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi--depicting her as a frivolous and aloof socialite who was "as foreign as any foreigner I had ever met." (Note: Sonia was rejected as a potential prime minister, and subsequently bowed out of the contest, when the Congress Party won power in 2004).

According to Singh, who is sometimes called "the Saffron Sikh" for her apparent enthusiasm for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or its positions, as the young wife of Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sonia was both ignorant and "terrified of India in a deep, deep way." 

How so? She was so concerned that her babies would contract malaria that she burned mosquito coils under their cribs until a doctor advised her that the smoke was unhealthy. And she was shocked and appalled by the poverty and filth of an Indian village where she observed a baby playing with a piece of cow dung and giving it a few sample chews.

More serious, in Singh's transparent slam-piece, are the charges that India's Camelot was infested with "foreigners," whom the Indians treated with so much deference that even Sonia's inability to speak proper English -- after all, she was Italian -- was excused.  ("We were deeply impressed by all things foreign not just because we had been ruled by White men for so long but because secretly we believed that Western culture and civilization was superior to ours," Singh writes, in a transparent effort to make her charges more credible through the form of the confessional).

The trouble here is not that Sonia Gandhi is a great figure or sincere person, though some Indians would certainly argue that point. Rather, it's Singh's refusal to allow for the possibility of her personal development, and her implied insistence that what someone once was determines who she will always be. (That's leaving aside the implied suggestion that Sonia must have had some involvement in the Bofors defense scandal, because she and Rajiv seemed so cosy with arms dealer Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife, Maria).

On the one hand, Singh would have readers decry a past when "we were deeply impressed by all things foreign," while on the other hand she invests foreign-ness with undue importance -- as if India still has much to fear and simply by associating with foreigners one might lose one's way. Moreover, rather than laud Sonia for her subsequent embrace of the country -- whether founded in a sense of opportunity or a debt to her assassinated husband -- at least in this excerpt Singh chooses to rake up observations from a handful of 40-year-old parties to imply that her current avatar is some kind of false posture.

Clearly, that is not the case. Regardless of your views on Sonia's rights, as an Italian-born citizen of India, to the prime minister's chair, you can hardly deny her credit for her work in India since the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, in 1991. Not all of it was done out of a disinterested love for the country, of course: She was also fighting for her family's legacy and the personal power associated with heading India's oldest political party. And it's trivializing to home in on "foreignness" she displayed in the distant past.

Sonia was aloof, Singh concludes, essentially, because she and Singh herself didn't become fast friends, and Singh was unable to overhear many soul-bearing comments when she was lurking in the background at these socialites' parties. But surely one is aloof with people one hardly knows, when one's English is halting and Hindi non-existent, and when one's every utterance has implications for the serving prime minister.

The twofold argument seems to be obvious: Sonia is an Italian and the Gandhi family is a form of democratic royalty. But those are things nobody needed socialites' gossip to confirm.