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Why the Gandhis need to come clean on their wealth

Last updated on: December 03, 2013 16:03 IST

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi

Could this reluctance be tied to the family's projection of themselves as the last bastion of the aam-aadmi's interests?

Do they fear that a full disclosure of their not-inconsiderable assets would go against their carefully-cultivated pro-poor image, wonders Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

Through the weekend the social media was abuzz with talk of Sonia Gandhi's net worth being higher than that of Queen Elizabeth II. The reason for the online chatter: A feature by the credible and creditable Huffington Post on the wealth of world leaders, which rated Gandhi higher than the British monarch in the pecking order.

HuffPo was not the first to make such a claim, but like with previous such listings by other news publications that either met with a stodgy silence from the ruling family of India or a redaction, HuffPo has since clarified:

Editor's Note: Sonia Gandhi and the former emir of Qatar Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani have been removed from this list. Gandhi was originally included based on a listing on a third party site which was subsequently called into question. Our editors have been unable to verify the amount, removed the link, and regret any confusion...

But in this note lies a story. Which is that in the world's largest democracy, the voters have no clue about the wealth of their netas, not just the Gandhis. But the latter stand out, one, because they occupy the centrestage of Indian politics, and, two, by deed and inference they seem to suggest that their brand of politics is different from the discredited version that we see play out on our television screens day after day, night after night.

But for a matriarch who, it was claimed, was the piloting force behind the revolutionary Right to Information Act which removed the veils of secrecy surrounding the government, she and her offspring, not to mention extended family, like the rest of their political ilk, have been chary of disclosing their wealth to the nation.

As none of the Gandhis are members of the Union Council of Ministers, they are not required to submit updated details of their wealth to the Prime Minister's Office. Thus, the only details of their wealth is from candidate affidavits for the 2009 election, going by which Mrs Gandhi can never rank higher than the British queen, unless the latter has fallen on really really bad times.

For these are her details: Cash of Rs 75,000; Rs 28,61,660.89 in a bank account with UCO Bank; Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) in mutual funds; RBI bonds for Rs 12 lakh (Rs 1.2 million); 10 shares of Maruti Technical Services Pvt Ltd (unquoted); 500 shares of Western India Tanneries Ltd; NSS  Rs 199,380; PPF with interesting amounting to Rs 24,88,887.39; jewellery (presumably gold) of 2518.450 gms worth Rs 11,08,100 in 2008; silverware of a whopping 88 kg valued five years ago at Rs 18,37,440.

More interesting are the details of immovable properties owned by her. The 2009 affidavit says she owns three bighas of land in village Dera Mandi and 12 bighas in village Sultanpur, valued at Rs 219,300. Then there is an ancestral property in Italy, valued at Rs 18.05 lakhs (Rs 1.80 million).

But, but, but.. the important point here is that either the valuation is at face value, like with mutual funds, RBI bonds etc, or market value as on March 31, 2008. If she was a Union minister, we would have known the current market value of every bit of investment and property she owns.

Even this, it seems, is not a very popular move among our ministers, for as of the morning of December 3, 13 ministers are yet to submit their asset details, three months after the deadline expired.

And here is the clincher: The Indian Express points out that a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate in the 2008 Delhi assembly election had declared his landholding similar to what Sonia Gandhi holds in village Dera to be worth Rs 18.37 crore (Rs 183.7 million)!

According to a Supreme Court ruling, candidates contesting elections are required to announce the value of their assets, but this seems to be something observed more in breach, most of them preferring to either not mention current details or take shelter behind outdated valuations.

When you think about it, rather than hiding behind legalities, verbal obfuscation and such, the HuffPo report could have been an opportunity for the Gandhi family, including the son-in-law about whose real estate dealings so much has been said and written, to tell the nation just how much they are worth.

The Gandhis, for all their claims, you realise, never ever address the media or the nation. What we hear from them is second-hand information, attributed to 'sources close to the family', and even this information is presented to show the family in a good light (like how Sonia wanted the Food Security Bill passed despite being admitted to hospital during the vote) etc, never what the nation wants to know (and one is not talking of a television show here).

Even their reluctance to accept an office of power, you realise, could be tied to their reluctance to come clean about themselves, their wealth.

Could this reluctance be tied to the family's projection of themselves as the last bastion of the aam-aadmi's interests?

Do they fear that a full disclosure of their not-inconsiderable assets would go against their carefully-cultivated pro-poor image?

In the absence of any word from any of them, all one can do is speculate. And add to the not-too-flattering buzz on the social media about them. Even on this medium, you realise, the family has been loath to engage, leaving their frontline defence to party loyalists.

Which is a real tragedy. For the India that reposed its faith in the Gandhi mystique in 2004, and followed it up again in 2009, is not the same nation that will go to the polls next year.

It is a changed India, impatient India, questioning India -- and the UPA headed by Mrs Gandhi being the primary agent of this change.

It is this India that seeks, needs and wants a clarification from the first family about itself. Debunking it would be disowning the very change they have wrought.

And in the absence of disclosures from them, there will always be a miasma of doubt over their sincerity towards a new and clean brand of politics.

Image: Congress President Sonia Gandhi with her son, party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy