So let’s be frank here: so far, it looks like Robert Vadra’s villainy is at best really small-time. It may still emerge that he beat puppies to death with giant wads of black money, but the story so far strongly suggests that he – like a lot of other shady, badly jacketed, superbike-driving South Delhi types – speculated in real estate with still unaccounted-for cash, and made big profits on the back of a well-timed regulatory change. A definite whiff of impropriety, made worse by his arrogant reaction when accused. Still, in a country awash with egregious examples of obvious corruption, one would think this wouldn’t be a big deal. But it is. Why is that?
The answer is: the Gandhi Exception.
Nobody would raise an eyebrow if Mr Vadra was just another attender of lavish farmhouse parties. Even if he was the son-in-law of pretty much any other political leader, it wouldn’t be headline news; it would be three inches at the bottom of page seven, at most. It is because he is a Gandhi by marriage that people think it’s the biggest news since Caveman Times announced the discovery of fire. Minor news is major, if it’s about the Gandhis.
This is not the Gandhi Exception that most people believe exists. As an unwilling connoisseur of Silly Things Indians Say, I have long been vastly amused by the kind of thing that most people are willing to believe about the Gandhis — and which they further imagine every journalist and editor conspire over their Peter Scot-and-soda to conceal. I don’t just mean people like Subramanian Swamy, to whom rationality is an undiscovered country, and who says perfectly seriously and with his usual vehemence that Sonia Gandhi conspired with the LTTE and the Palestinians to murder her husband, and that the point of SPG protection is so her family can carry priceless antiques out of India to auction in her sister’s shop in a small Italian town. To repeat just two of his more reasonable assertions.
No, I mean otherwise perfectly normal people who will tell you, worried, that Sonia Gandhi is one of the world’s richest people, or that Rahul Gandhi laundered the 2G money to feed his drug addiction, or that they together secretly own all South Delhi’s malls. If a smidgen of a hint of a glimmer of an iota of evidence is requested, these worried citizens immediately turn on you: why, they say, is The Media making an exception of the Gandhis, protecting them? In backwards world, the fact that there are no stories about the Gandhis’ corruption is conclusive proof of their corruption. Imagine how much money, we’re told, they must have, to pay off every single journalist in India and still have stuff left over to buy off the BJP! The classic hallmark of the dedicated conspiracy theorist is the belief that absence of evidence is actually proof.
The rate at which even half-empty stories have filled our newspapers about Mr Vadra should reveal the truth: that most journalists are itching to file a Gandhi-related story, and have seized an opportunity to do so. Instead, many people – to all of whom, presumably, Bofors is just a gun – have decided that this is a watershed moment, in which The Media has finally broken their only ironclad rule, and started talking about the Gandhis’ wrongdoing. That most pink papers and financial channels have resolutely attacked the Gandhis’ populism is irrelevant; so is the fact that every mainstream outlet has been correctly dismissive of Rahul Gandhi’s continuing unwillingness to take positions on policy issues. For people convinced that 10 Janpath has vast basements full of Coalgate money, such opposition is merely a sign that The Media is scared of the real issues.
The simple truth is that the Gandhi Exception works in the opposite direction. Consider the forensic scrutiny of Mr Vadra’s balance sheets, most exceptionally by this newspaper. I cannot remember any other time when a relative of a politician had his business dealings so closely scrutinised, with lengthy questionnaires sent out to his associates. Can you? Name one. Do you know what Mamata Banerjee’s brothers do for a living? What the balance sheets of Sharad Pawar’s son-in-law say of his sources of funds? How many properties in Gurgaon Kapil Sibal has, and at what price he bought them? No, you don’t. Because they are, and always have been, less interesting stories for everyone in the media than anything to do with the Gandhis.
The profound silliness of this Gandhis-are-no-longer-untouchable school of thought is best expressed in an article in Friday’s Indian Express by the Lohiaite turned middle-class messiah, Yogendra Yadav. If Mr Vadra “can be questioned in public, just like any ordinary property dealer, then nobody is beyond the pale of public scrutiny”, says Mr Yadav. Interesting point. Oh wait, no it isn’t. Because we don’t question “ordinary” property dealers in public, do we? The inversion of the truth would be funny if it wasn’t so pervasive.
The Gandhis have much to answer for. In particular, their hands-off political style, an attempt to create an above-the-fray demeanour. There haven’t been enough real stories for the media to write about them and their opinions. That has had real, negative effects for the Congress’ cohesiveness, and thus for India’s governance, but it’s also meant we focus on their understandable, and not unusual, insistence on personal privacy — which encourages the credulous and the aggrieved to invent, embellish and spread wild theories about their dealings. Arvind Kejriwal, darkly implying that Gurgaon was turned into a hellish unregulated community-destroying sprawl specifically in order to allow Mr Vadra to make money, merely reflects his constituency’s beliefs. That people suspend all judgement when it comes to this infuriating family is, indeed, the Gandhi Exception.