After the infamous ‘zero loss’ theory propounded by Kapil Sibal in the 2G scam and by P Chidambaram in the Coalgate scam, Congress leaders are conjuring up a half-lie to sell another ‘zero’ theory in connection with recent claims about state expenses on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels.
And they are leaning on information furnished by the Chief
Election Information Commissioner (CIC) on Wednesday to try and extract an apology from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who claimed, on the basis of a newspaper report, that the government had spent Rs 1,880 crore Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels.
But in doing so, they are being patently disingenuous to such an extent that it makes one wonder exactly why they are being selective with the truth.
The CIC order of May 2012 (details here) had been passed on an RTI application that had sought information relating to the expenditure incurred on Sonia Gandhi’s treatment in the US during August-September 2011. The CIC order noted that the application “had been transferred to various other public authorities” and that in each case the authorities had informed the Appellant that “they had no such record to show any expenditure having been made”.
That delicate wording still leaves open one possibility: the absence of a record doesn’t mean that no expenditure was incurred at all. But in any case, at a subsequent hearing, a little more information was forthcoming. The CIC order notes that from the submissions made the authorities, “it was quite clear that neither any reimbursement for any such expenditure had been claimed” by Sonia Gandhi “nor any expenditure made in this regard”.
In other words, the CIC order noted, “till now, the government has incurred no expenditure in this regard”.
So far, so good.
But is this the last word on the entire episode, and does this clarification from the CIC disprove Modi’s claim in respect of the state expenditure on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels, based on a newspaper report? Does Modi owe Sonia Gandhi an apology? Far from it.
Modi’s claim was based on the information as furnished in some media reports, which related to another RTI application filed by Ramesh Verma, a Hissar-based RTI activist, in 2010. In that RTI application, Verma had raised three questions:
How many trips had Sonia Gandhi undertaken in the past 10 years? In what capacity had she undertaken these trips, and how much money had been spent on them? Thirdly, what had the country gained from Sonia Gandhi’s visits abroad?
In other words, the original RTI application (on the basis of which Modi made his claim) related not to expenditure on Sonia Gandhi’s treatment overseas, but to the expenditure on her travels abroad over the past 10 years in her capacity as chairperson of the National Advisory Council.
It may well be true, as the CIC order of May 2012 and released on Wednesday establishes, that Sonia Gandhi did not seek reimbursement of her expenses on her treatment overseas. But that still leaves open the question asked in the RTI application of 2010: whether her foreign trips of the past 10 years had been paid out by the state.
The information sought in the 2010 RTI application has not been furnished to this day; the files are busily being pushed from department to department, prompting the CIC in June 2011 to pull up the Prime Minister’s Office.
By conflating the two RTI applications and by claiming vindication on the basis of the CIC order of May 2012 (relating to expenses incurred on Sonia Gandhi’s treatment), Congress leaders are diverting attention away from the question that has not been answered: was any state expenditure incurred on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels over the past 10 years (some of them may have been made for health-related reasons, but others that must have surely made on official governmental work or in a personal capacity).
“Since June 2004, the month UPA came to power, the Congress president and her son have not bothered to inform the (Lok Sabha) secretariat about any of their foreign trips” (as they are required to).
And when India Today filed an application under the RTI Act to the Lok Sabha Secretariat asking for details of personal foreign travel made by MPs since the 14th Lok Sabha, it furnished relevant information for lawmakers other than the Gandhis.
The reply from Harish Chandra, Deputy Secretary of the of the Lok Sabha, said: “This secretariat attends to work relating to official visits of Indian parliamentary delegations going abroad and maintains record of foreign travel of members of the LS in their personal capacity if such travel is intimated by them to the Speaker’s office.”
India Today subsequently filed another RTI query specifically asking how many intimations/requests the LS secretariat received regarding the foreign travels of Sonia and Rahul during the 14th and 15th Lok Sabhas. The response of K Sona, under secretary, Lok Sabha,… was: “Nil.”
As the magazine reported, “even official foreign travel details of the Gandhis are a mystery”.
Strategic affairs analyst B Raman notes that Sonia Gandhi is a “SPG protectee” on account of the many threats to her life, and whenever she travels abroad, providing SPG cover involves deputing a team of close-proximity guards of the SPG to protect her at her place of stay and during her movements and liaising with the local security authorities.
In that connection, the SPG would have been authorised to incur expenditure on air travel and hotel stay of the SPG guards accompanying Sonia Gandhi, and on the vehicles hired for her movements in the place she visited.
“These are legitimate items of expenditure and nobody can object to it,” Raman notes. “Does the public have a right to know this expenditure? Yes it has, but not the details of the break-up as that could involve revealing details regarding the number of close proximity guards accompanying her while she travels abroad and the kind of special protection vehicles she uses. These details should not be revealed in the interest of her security.”
Nobody—not Modi, not the RTI activist, not anyone else—is asking for a break-up of security details and the expenditure thereon. Nor, as far as this latest back-and-forth are concerned, is anyone asking for details of Sonia Gandhi’s health status, which are protected undder privacy law. All that the RTI activist sought was information on the overall expenses incurred by the state (if any) on Sonia Gandhi’s overseas tours.
It is this wholesale secrecy—even about aspects of Sonia Gandhi’s and Rahul Gandhi’s public life—on which it is legitimate to ask these questions, that is severely problematic. Congress leaders and their apologists are defending the indefensible when they conflate details of two RTI applications and avoid answering the very pointed questions raised by Ramesh Verma. Their wilful resort to half-truths and half-lies is ironically keeping the issue alive longer than it needs to be.