It has not been a good week for the Dynasty. Investigations have begun into the finances of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and other ‘charities’ built in Rajiv’s name by his devoted widow. And, Priyanka Gandhi has been evicted from the magnificent bungalow on the edge of Lodhi Gardens that she moved into when she married Robert Vadra in 1997. Congress party spokesmen have been enlisted to publicly declare, loudly and often, that this is nothing but a ‘political witch hunt’. But, is it? Really, is it?
The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was set up by Sonia Gandhi around the time that she appointed her first proxy prime minister. P V Narasimha Rao rarely paid obeisance to her after becoming prime minister and was punished for this. But, did not object when his Finance Minister, the good Dr Manmohan Singh, included a grant of Rs 100 crore for this private foundation in the Budget. Objections came loud and strong from the media and the grant was withdrawn but nobody really objected when the foundation was allotted a huge piece of public land not far from Parliament. In that ‘socialist’ time it was considered normal for political leaders to set up private institutions on public land. And, who could refuse the Dynasty anything in those days?
It now turns out that the Foundation, on whose board sit Sonia Gandhi’s most trusted friends and officials, sought funds from other donors and one of them happened to be the Chinese government. It was not a clever thing to do. And, since the Modi government has chosen to reveal this information at a time when the Chinese have behaved with barbarism and extreme aggression in Ladakh, it has become something of a scandal. An investigation must be conducted into why Sonia’s private foundation had no qualms about taking such a large donation ($300,000) from an enemy country’s government.
It would also be useful to investigate other Indian ‘charities’ being funded by the Chinese because we must never forget that the ‘Mitrokhin Archive’, written by a former KGB spymaster, revealed that many of Indira Gandhi’s ministers were being paid by the Soviet Union. As were famous Marxist journalists. It is entirely possible that China is now doing something similar.
The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, and its various offshoots, also received funds from Indian public sector companies and that is reprehensible as well. The reason why there needs to be a full investigation is because in the name of ‘good works’ many other political leaders have gobbled up expensive public land to set up educational institutions that usually serve as instruments to distribute patronage. This practice should never have been allowed. But, in those socialist days when the media was a feeble creature, it was easy to get away with many misdemeanours by giving journalists public land to build their private homes in state capitals. In Delhi, nearly every important journalist was allotted a Lutyens bungalow or flat and usually this sufficed to make them careful about what they said and wrote.
This brings us to the subject of Priyanka Gandhi’s bungalow. She was supposedly given it for reasons of security, but surely it would have been easier to protect her in a small apartment? Did she need a bungalow built on at least five acres of land when the market value of one acre is more than Rs 150 crore? There are those who say that she should not have been given government accommodation since she has never served in any official capacity. Personally, I have campaigned in this column for all officials and politicians to be evicted from their government houses. Millions of Indians can afford no more than a rented hovel in a slum. Why should their ‘servants’ live like princes?
My first full interview with Narendra Modi happened in 2013 after I wrote a piece in this column saying that the denizens of Lutyens Delhi were trembling in terror at the thought of him becoming prime minister. They feared that if he did make it to this most privileged of India’s residential enclaves, he would, as a man who rose from nothing, realise that it was an abomination to house his ministers and MPs in vast bungalows. I hoped that he would recognise that it was wrong for officials and politicians to occupy virtually every street in Lutyens Delhi. The only other people who can afford to live here are billionaires. Security is a stupid excuse. If MPs are to be housed at taxpayers’ expense they are safer in one of Delhi’s broke government hotels. Ministers will be more secure in homes on the 600-acre estate that surrounds Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The eviction of Priyanka Gandhi from accommodation she should never have been allotted is a good opportunity to go further and evict everyone else as well. In these difficult times the Modi government could make a small fortune out of making commercial use of Lutyens Delhi. The potential is huge.
While we are on the subject it is also a good time for the Prime Minister to abandon his grandiose plans to rebuild Parliament and build a house for himself on the Central Vista. Instead of officials living in the most beautiful part of Delhi the Central Vista should be a place for museums, theatres, gardens and libraries. Delhi is the only capital city that allows officials to squat on its finest spaces. Tavleen Singh is an Indian columnist, political reporter and writer. TheIndianExpress