Politicians should be cut some slack for making exaggerated claims and launching strong and satirical attacks on their rivals in the heat of electioneering. But Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi has displayed shockingly bad taste in making an issue about the money allegedly spent on Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels in recent years, often for medical treatment. First, he repeated, on the basis of an unsourced newspaper report, that the Centre had spent a wildly improbable Rs. 1,880 crore on her overseas trips. When he came under fire for this unsubstantiated attack, Mr. Modi simply changed tack. All right, he argued, if it was not Rs. 1,880 crore tell us how much? And then, in a hugely unconvincing attempt to retrieve a hopeless situation, he demanded the United Progressive Alliance government disclose how much public money was spent on her foreign trips from 2004, or well before she took ill. With the Central Information Commission clarifying that Ms Gandhi had not sought any reimbursement from the Centre for her medical expenditure, Mr. Modi’s attack seems even more malicious and insulting. That he chose to score points off a political rival’s illness shows the moral depths he is prepared to plumb in his pursuit of power.
It is possible that Mr. Modi simply put his foot in his mouth in levelling this wild allegation. But his recent election speeches suggest that targeting the Gandhi family is part of a larger political strategy. First he attacked Rahul Gandhi for having a mother who was born outside India, saying that he could win an election in Italy if he liked. And now this. Mr. Modi may well believe that identifying the Gandhis as his principal rival is a clever way of signalling his ambition to climb the national political stage before the 2014 general election. While he must be unreservedly condemned for saying what he did, the likelihood of such a controversy erupting would be far less had there not been such an impenetrable veil of secrecy drawn over Ms Gandhi’s medical condition and treatment. An individual’s medical treatment is private information and, as the CIC has correctly pointed out, any personal expenditure on it cannot be the subject matter of an RTI application. But Ms Gandhi, as Chairperson of the UPA and the National Advisory Council, is a public figure and the degree of secrecy surrounding her medical condition is unusual for a democracy. While her privacy, like the privacy of all citizens, is paramount, the Congress high command should realise it is precisely the absence of any authoritative information that provides fertile ground for rumours and canards to spread.