Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House Congress president Sonia Gandhi. (Naveen Jora/India Today Group/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Given how Indian mainstream media has created the myth of Sonia Gandhi as a saint in politics, it is no surprise that today, when she is criticised, the same people find it unacceptable.

There are myths and there is mythmaking.

There are myths around many people from time immemorial where many people who interacted with some exceptionally gifted individual would bring out their own personal insights about them. Together, these insights would go onto create stories around the many famous people history has seen. This is organic myth-making.

However, with the rise of mass media, there’s another kind of myth-making that is not organic but is organised. Because big media houses have themselves been integral to creating myths.

Why does it grate so many in the media and political circles if Sonia Gandhi’s name is taken in a negative light?

Because they have this notion that ‘St Sonia’ cannot be touched.

This is the story of ‘St Sonia’ in India and how an image was created.

We shall look at it through the lens of India Today magazine’s covers since India Today can arguably be seen as the driving force of this halo around Sonia Gandhi, right from early 2000s.

Take for example, this India Today cover from December 2002, which heralded the arrival of ‘The New Mrs G’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

A beaming Sonia Gandhi crowned an equal to her mother-in-law.

Why was this cover an important one? Till around this time, both the Congress and its people in the Lutyens Delhi ecosystem were sure that they had to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at every juncture but may not have been sure about who to prop up as an alternative to Vajpayee.

After having seen Sonia Gandhi’s rule for a decade, many can scarcely believe those times when she was still not sure of her complete hold on the party. India Today became an early mover.

This seemed like a signal to the whole Delhi power ecosystem who would later rally around her to unseat the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It’s not that there was only good news about the Congress on India Today’s covers.

However, even when the news wasn’t so rosy for the Congress, there would be no personal, acerbic or attacking titles about Sonia Gandhi.

It is well known that around 2003-04, very few thought the wind was blowing the Congress way. Even India Today could not help but feel so about the Congress’s shrinking chances in various states.

However, even a title cover from this time has Sonia Gandhi waving with the headline ‘Honey I Shrunk the Congress!’.

No personal attacks like ‘Hero of Hatred’ or ‘Master Divider’ which were used for Narendra Modi in those years.

In May 2004, when the results of the poll were out, the cover of India Today was a jubilant Sonia Gandhi with the title ‘Sonia Shining Atal Sunset’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

But the true ‘Project St Sonia’ began, arguably, later in the same month, with an assertive looking Sonia Gandhi on cover along with PM Manmohan Singh.

Gandhi was saying something to the cameras while Singh was looking inscrutable and lost.

The title of cover – SONIA’s PM – set the record straight on whose appointee Singh was and what the hierarchy was.

This is important to remember, because, as we see in the future, whenever negative covers are seen, it is often Singh who is featured, although India Today itself has made clear who runs the show.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

India Today’s cover story of June 2004 introduces to India the new VIPs of the country with the title ‘The New VIPS’.

Who are these people?

India Today comes out with a neologism in its fine print – Soniaites – to define them.

So, Sonia Gandhi has already been placed above the regular rough and tumble of politics, as the fountainhead of a whole new ideology on her own – Soniaism.

Just one month into the government, ‘Soniaites’ were altering the course of government and history already, if one believes India Today!

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

However, later in the year, when ranking the UPA government’s best and worst ministers, which is obviously bound to have some negatives, the title is ‘Manmohan’s Ministers, The Best and the Worst’!

Sonia’s PM, but Manmohan’s ministers, how is that?

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Next, check a cover in January 2005. What does this tell you? ‘Project St Sonia’ was written all over it.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Next, let India Today teach you how to seed certain thoughts in your mind even when things are not going Sonia Gandhi’s way.

“Is Sonia Gandhi losing the halo of sainthood?”, asks India Today.

That’s like asking “Have you stopped beating your wife?”.

If you say yes, you have to agree she had a halo of sainthood in the first place. If you say no, then you must think she still has the halo. Either way, the sainthood is confirmed.

Also, look at the way they write ‘Subversion of the popular mandate through the governors’ office in Goa and Jharkhand’ without telling us that these were subversions of the popular mandate that happened at her behest.

Someone who reads it would not be at fault if they thought these subversions were against her party.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Even when they are showing trouble brewing between the party and the government during the UPA era, who are they building up and who are they cutting down to size?

What do the visual and its corresponding summary tell you?

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Here’s a cover from 2006 on the chicanery of exonerating Ottavio Quattrocchi without any trial.

At whose behest could this have happened?

Who among the powerful elite of 2006 could be close enough to Quattrocchi to make this happen? We don’t get a clue in the cover.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Just two months later, in April 2006, the Opposition had cornered Sonia Gandhi on the office of profit issue. Clearly, she had been caught on the wrong foot and had to resign as MP.

However, India Today’s spin brings back the ‘St. Sonia’ image with the title ‘Martyr Stroke’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Fast forward to March 2008, the pre-election year. “Now Vote For Us” - A picture is worth a thousand words.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 
Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

This is a cover from later the same year in 2008. Who’s giving directions? Any doubt?

And here’s a cover from April 2009 that tells you all there is to be told.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Till now, the going was good, the UPA kept its winning streak. Come 2010, bad news started for the UPA.

So, you would expect some of the blame to be apportioned to the UPA chairperson, the person who is the puppet-master of Manmohan Singh.

Is that what happened?

Per India Today, UPA meant Under Performing Alliance. Fine. But who’s at the helm of the alliance? Surely, the UPA chairperson.

However, who is shown on the cover in May 2010 with the title? Manmohan Singh.

Why? Because, remember, ‘St. Sonia’ can only be given credit for good things. When they go wrong, she cannot be blamed, because she is above the normal dirty world of politics, a ‘martyr’, a ‘saint’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

The biggest news breaks in 2010 were the CWG scam and the 2G scam. On India Today issues about those scams, let alone Sonia Gandhi, even Congress wasn’t there!

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 
Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Later that year, when Jagan Mohan Reddy was sounding the bugle against Sonia Gandhi after having been pushed to a corner by her, India Today did a curious cover story on the equation between him and Sonia Gandhi.

All these years, when Y S Rajashekhar Reddy was around, Jagan’s growth did not pique the interest of this magazine. But it starts doing so only when he shows the temerity to take on Sonia Gandhi.

Also, look at the placement of Sonia as victim, by saying Jagan’s channel launched vituperative attacks on her. So, the subtext is, he deserves what is coming for him, for attacking ‘St. Sonia’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

In 2011, we find that rare India Today cover which is both negative and has Sonia Gandhi featured.

The clouds of doom looming large over the Congress are too undeniable even for India Today. Yet again, remember, whenever there is something negative, Sonia Gandhi is never alone, she always shares space with Manmohan Singh or someone else. Also, the attack is never against her, despite the well established fact that nothing happened in the government without her go-ahead.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 
Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

However, by October 2011, there was a way to spin Sonia Gandhi out of all the negativity, by painting her as a victim. ‘How Ill Is Mrs Gandhi?’ is the title cover. After all, if she is so ill, she cannot be seen as responsible for the double digit inflation and astronomical scams unfolding in her government, can she?

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

In 2012, Sonia Gandhi is still a poor victim trapped in a corner by wily hinterland politicians Mulayam and Mamata. Again, a poor victim, nothing more.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

In the same year, India Today says that UPA is losing India. It also says there’s a black mark due to coal scam as well as reports on Robert Vadra’s ‘unreal estate’.

But look at the covers. Who’s the UPA chairperson? Who was the number 1 when coal scam happened? You would never know.

Thankfully, they do mention whose son-in-law Robert Vadra is.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

April 2014. The writing on the wall is clear. But who is the failure and the loser?

Manmohan Singh.

But hadn’t India Today called him Sonia’s PM? So, he was Sonia’s PM when things were good, but a lonely failure when things weren’t; Sonia Gandhi’s image protected no matter what.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

But in 2015, with the loss firmly behind, blame particularly apportioned to everyone else but Sonia Gandhi, ‘Project St Sonia’ is back.

“Mother's mission: With Rahul still missing in action, Sonia Gandhi steps up to lead the Congress from the front. Will her firefighting salvage the party?”, says their synopsis.

The usage of mother’s mission to give a soft glow, the idea of her firefighting to show that she is a ‘fighter’, all are illustrative. When the mere mortals of the Congress cannot run the show, out comes ‘St. Sonia’.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Stories about Sonia Gandhi’s alleged scams begin to tumble out in 2016 with Agusta Westland. But it’s not about Sonia Gandhi’s involvement, but about BJP ‘targeting’ her.

India Today, in this edition, says it is decoding the BJP’s strategy to pin the blame for Agusta Westland scam on the Congress president.

The takeaway – blame is being pinned upon her. It’s just a BJP strategy. Poor ‘St. Sonia’ is being targeted for political vendetta.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Come March 2018, Sonia Gandhi features on India Today’s cover along with Hillary Clinton; after all, ‘St. Sonia’s’ true league is as a ‘global leader’ despite being reduced to 44 seats in India.

Look into this speech that Mr Aroon Purie gave at this conclave, in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, filled with words such as “Grand Old Party's Prime Protector” , “supreme leader”, “Mother Courage”, “ultimate negotiator”, “a sense of service, selflessness and sacrifice”.

Creating A Mythology Around ‘St Sonia’: A Case Study Of One Media House 

Did you observe that in all these years, there were no covers regarding the sensational National Herald scam where Sonia Gandhi is ‘Accused Number 1’ and is out on bail?

This is how organised myth-making works.

In fact, while India Today was a trailblazer of sorts in building this halo around Sonia Gandhi, it wasn’t only India Today who did it. They just look like the leader of the pack.

For example, here is what Sevanti Ninan in The Hoot notes on the myth-making around Sonia Gandhi’s ‘renunciation’ of the PM post.

You have a government and ruling party with two power centres. It is truly extraordinary how little writing and comment there has been on this precedent. The press has been so caught up in playing up the renunciation story that is has been seduced into believing that it is the full story. And have we all lost our sense of perspective that we buy the Sonia Gandhi-Mahatma Gandhi comparison without realising how bizarre it is?

Further, Ninan writes, “On the day of her "renunciation" it [Hindustan Times] had an enormous picture of her with the headline, "Amazing Grace. " Over the top, to put it mildly. It also wrote an editorial titled "Turning it Down," roughly in the same vein as the Hindu’s editorial "Stunning Political Sacrifice." (May 19, both.)”

Sonia Gandhi was being compared to Mahatma Gandhi, can you imagine that?

As we saw above, this fawning start was only the beginning of gushing coverage of Sonia Gandhi over the last decade and a half, where she was made a saint above all politics and criticism.

Today, when she is criticised, no wonder that the same people would find it unacceptable.

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