THE late Rajiv Gandhi once startled farmers by urging them to plant red chillies instead of green ones. A mistake Congress president Sonia Gandhi wouldn't make; and not just because she knows what's what in the kitchen cabinet. Now that silence will no longer serve, she's fore-arming herself with megabytes on the issues of the day.
Shut away from the world in a rigidly-controlled bungalow behind an impenetrable wall of SPG muscle, denied access to the first-hand information and experiences available to most politicians, Sonia is relying on an array of "think-tanks"—former ministers and bureaucrats, apolitical "friends of the first family", members of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and a wide range of academics—to fill her in on subjects of contemporary importance.
On her instructions, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) drew up a list of 35 experts/intellectuals from various fields to provide her with inputs and help educate the party. For instance, strategic studies expert K. Subrahmanyam on nuclear issues, writers Rajiv Bhargava and T.N. Madan on secularism, former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan on electoral reform, former IB chief M.K. Narayanan on the National Security Council, M.S. Swaminathan on agriculture, professors Zoya Hasan and Yogendra Yadav on the Congress itself, K.C. Sivaramakrishnan on delimitation, historians Romila Thapar and S. Gopal (Jawaharlal Nehru's biographer) on Ayodhya and Justice P.N. Bhagwati on judicial reforms. Eminent counsel L.M. Singhvi was on the list (constitution review), but was dropped after he broke faith by getting elected to the Rajya Sabha courtesy the BJP.
Sonia isn't going to school alone. The aforesaid experts will provide modules for the proposed National Training Institute, to be set up at 26, Akbar Road next to the AICC office. Headed by Pranab Mukherjee, it will have five regional centres and provide training for Congress leaders and cadres. The Congress president apparently does not think much of the hoary Seva Dal as a breeding ground for party leaders. The scheme was mooted by former Speaker P.A. Sangma, who is said to have been impressed with his experience of the BJP's training camp at Jhinjhauli.
"Madam" demands reams of data before formulating the party's stand on any issue. She believes in hard copy; everything must be put down on paper. Her information must come packaged in discrete bytes: clear, concise and simple, free of fussy verbiage and adjectification. Unlike her late husband, who was a one-page brief man, she demands detail. And on every subject, observes a member of the advisory corps, she wants to know what her mother-in-law and husband had to say.
Old pal Suman Dubey (now head of Dow Jones in India) and Rajiv favourite Rajiv Desai (IPAN) continue to advise, while P.N. Haksar, Y.K. Alagh and H.Y. Sharda Prasad are always available for telephonic consults. Mani Shankar Aiyer, R.D. Pradhan, M.L. Fotedar, Arjun Singh, Shiela Dixit, Margaret Alva and K. Karunakaran, who have a special status in the party by virtue of being "close to Madam", are consulted. But at the end of the day, she is her own woman. The coterie's importance—or lack of it—was evident in that she refused Arjun Singh and Fotedar Rajya Sabha seats.
"Congress party maun hai, Sonia kay salah-kaar kaun hai?" The answer, quite simply, is everybody and nobody. Take the nuclear issue. She summoned a meeting of six party leaders, including its media managers (and the ubiquitous V. George). They were divided four to two on how it ought to be handled, with Natwar Singh and Salman Khursh-eed insistent on going the whole hog in opposing the bomb and the rest advising caution, given the national euphoria. Both factions provided a brief and she plumped for the majority view, but only after a chat with Haksar, who worded the final draft.
In-house think-tanks are kept busy churning out background papers on various issues, from the Prasar Bharati Bill to economic sanctions. The 'A' team includes Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh on economics (with a little help from Mukherjee); Natwar Singh and Khursheed on international affairs; Margaret Alva on the CBI and women and child development; Kapil Sibal, P. Shiv Shankar and H.R. Bharadwaj on legal matters, etc. There's also N.K.P. Salve on power, Motilal Vora on UP, Ambika Soni on Punjab and Aiyer everywhere. Area specialists submit reports on regional issues.
Educating Sonia is no easy job; much midnight oil is burnt, keyboards pounded and references unearthed. Because Sonia doesn't just read, she assimilates, claim her advisors.Briefs, drafts and press statements are often returned with paragraphs slashed, margin notings and queries, all in lead pencil. She made five changes in the brief prepared for the CWC meeting last week, keeping functionaries up until 2 am. She's meticulous, perfectionist and therefore demanding. "She's serious. She means business," admits a senior leader.
Organisation is the buzzword at the new-look AICC. Taking a leaf out of Narasi-mha Rao's book, she's set up a score of committees to supervise the party's functioning, apart from advisory panels. The most important, perhaps, is the fivemember task force headed by Sangma to suggest ways of revitalising the Congress. It has delivered three reports so far. There are committees on legislative business, reviewing the party constitution, code of conduct, golden jubilee celebrations, policy research, public grievances, floor coordination in Parliament and chalking out the Congress president's tour programme.
Then there are the informal committees: the "darshan" committee (also known as the bibi brigade) which shadows Sonia as she nods, waves and (occasionally) reaches out to people during her daily durbars at 10, Janpath. Najma Heptullah, Alva and Soni are prominent members. There's the money matters committee, devoted to identifying sources of funds, which reportedly includes Murli Deora and Rameshwar Thakur. There's Newswatch (George's boys) which monitors media coverage—and the media.
The AICC "look" has changed to youthful, middle-aged chic. It helps to be photogenic (like Ramesh), sleek (like Khursheed), articulate (like Natwar Singh) and be a former bureaucrat (like Ajit Jogi). Dhoti-topiwallas are out. Among Sangma's suggestions was doing away with khadi and sitting on the floor during CWC meetings. The office itself has been spruced up with potted plants everywhere and a Fotedar-loyalist and Pawar-baiter, Major Sudhir Sawant, appointed as administration in-charge.
But what, ask Sonia-baiters in the party (yes, the tribe exists), has all this achieved? The Congress still put up a poor showing in Parliament, has waffled on the nuclear issue and Ayodhya and is failing to press home its advantage when the BJP blunders. Besides, all this consultation, deliberation and ideation delays reaction time. It took Gandhi several months to get to Andhra Pradesh and lend an ear to the cotton farmers. But it's early days yet. Humay dekhna hai....