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Comment

Silence is not always golden

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The British media's cold war with India concluded in the early 1990s. With the liberalisation of the Indian economy, and the diplomatic recognition of Israel, P V Narasimha Rao, the then prime minister, neutralised their age-old animosity.

The antagonistic approach of the past was slowly but surely replaced by a more constructive attention, even a slight oversight of some of India's grim realities. Indeed, commencing with Rao, Indian prime ministers started receiving space and time in the United Kingdom's print and electronic sectors respectively - a gesture hitherto unaccorded to their predecessors.

Therefore, when - according to the US Forbes magazine - today's Indian with the greatest clout, the world's 9th most powerful person, visits London and doesn't obtain an iota of coverage in the British press, there is legitimate reason to wonder why.

Yes, Sonia Gandhi, who is perceived to be more than just chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance at the centre and president of the Indian National Congress, arrived and departed last week virtually unnoticed by Britain's fourth estate.

Gandhi's trip was, of course, touted as "private" to both the British government and the Indian high commission in the UK. Yet, there was an obvious public element to it - the annual Commonwealth lecture on the topic of 'Women as Agents of Change'. Coincidentally, Kamlesh Sharma, a former Indian diplomat and Gandhi protege, is secretary-general of the 54-nation British-inspired conglomerate, the Commonwealth.

An assortment of the organisation's admirers - a diminishing breed these days - assembled at a banqueting facility near the iconic Trafalgar Square to lend their ears to Forbes' second mightiest woman (after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) in the planet. The 500-odd attendees, who included Trinidad & Tobago's elegant female prime minister of Indian origin, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, were largely moved by the content and delivery of Gandhi's speech.

Her refreshingly unrestrained laughter as she narrated the story of her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and two other "good looking" premiers, Bob Hawke of Australia and Brian Mulroney of Canada, failing to charm their British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, into changing her stubborn stance on South Africa at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) made as much of an impression on the audience as any serious sentiment in her text.

Strangely, it had not occurred to the Commonwealth - until this was raised by the London-based Indian Journalists' Association (IJA) - that there could be media interest in the event. Upon IJA's persistence, a paltry five passes (IJA has nearly 60 members) were offered, but a request for eight more was refused. Commonwealth officials defensively blamed Gandhi and Sharma;the latter, they alleged, had remote-controlled the show. The director at the secretary-general's office, Simon Gimson, replied "this is not the case".

In short, it was an avoidable goof-up, which, arguably, denied Gandhi's contribution wider publicity. Since it was by no means a clandestine conclave, what was its purpose if there wasn't going to be any distributive benefit derived from it?

Gandhi's fetish for privacy, unfortunately, extends its footprint to the media. She has every right to show paparazzi pestilence a clean pair of heels, especially during her private moments;but since she has now reconciled herself to public life, she does not exactly court popularity by shunning serious media. No Indian journalist got an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation with her even at a reception after the lecture, ringed as she was by burly SPG personnel and monitored by a watchful Sharma. The aura of inaccessibility is, perhaps, carefully crafted;but this can sometimes be counterproductive.

Gandhi's mother-in-law would, on her official sojourns to London, be accompanied by her daughters-in-law by rotation. It was either a sullen Maneka or a reticent Sonia in toe. Since then, the bashful Italian bahu has grown in confidence and stature. At the same time, she continues to be wary of uncharted encounters with unknown intelligentsia. The problem is, by keeping broadsheets at bay, she is probably rendering herself an injustice. Her courtiers would, in fact, do well to act in her interest rather than at her insistence.

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