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Selling Sonia

With a whirlwind successful tour of the South, Sonia revives Congress hopes

Selling Sonia
outlookindia.com
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Indira Gandhi would never have envisaged this role for her Italian bahu. But there she was on the centrestage of Indian politics, orchestrating the resurrection of the Congress and emphatically reiterating the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty over the 113-year-old party. The Sitaram Kesris and the Pranab Mukherjees have suddenly faded into the margins with Rajiv Gandhi's widow leading the Congress challenge. Now more than ever before, a leaderless Congress is being totally identified with a single persona—Sonia Gandhi.

At the end of round one of her campaigning, it was clear that Sonia is following a strategy worked out to the last detail. The larger-than-life cutouts of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv, Sonia and Priyanka. The paeans of praise showered on the family by speaker after speaker. Beaming Congressmen unabashedly admitting that minus the family the Congress is a lost force. It all seemed to be focused on the key theme of the Congress campaign—'Vote for us. The family is back.'

There is no charisma-metre to quantify Sonia's appeal. Neither is there any way of putting a number on the people who turned up spontaneously at her rallies. But wherever she made a public appearance, Sonia got the top billing. The crowds had come to see her and hear her. And empathise with her. The fact that she was Rajiv's widow and a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family who suffered in silence after her husband's assassination struck a chord.

Leave this out and the Sonia charisma is difficult to grasp. She cannot hide the fact that she is a foreigner. The English she speaks is with a very heavy Italian accent. Her translators are often long-winded and test the patience of the audience. But for all that, the audiences seem to be drawn to her and the few words of welcome she spouts in the local tongue are lapped up with great enthusiasm. And Sonia is basking in that glory.

For a person who has for long been shying away from the public eye, it was a strident and confident Sonia who took the stage at the National College grounds in Bangalore on January 15. Gone was the sombre, measured and apolitical tone of Sriperumbudur four days ago. Sonia spoke of the growing threat of communalism and launched a thinly-veiled attack on the BJP before dropping the Bofors bombshell. "I would be the happiest person if the Bofors papers are made public," she declared, even as she thumped the podium for effect. Then she paused and smirked—aware that she had topped the day's headlines on TV and in the morning papers.

More significant than the impact on her immediate audience has been the media mileage that her rallies have garnered. The Sonia Gandhi shows have been scripted for the print and electronic media. In Sriperumbudur, she hit the headlines with her sober promise to work for the party. At Bangalore, it was Bofors. In Hyderabad, it was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In Kochi, she made local news by not attacking the Left Front government. In Goa, she highlighted the need for security for all religious groupings. Now partymen promise fireworks at her rally in Bhubaneshwar, on the second leg of her campaign. With Sonia's entry, the campaigns of other political parties have virtually been relegated to the inside pages of newspapers.

The media spotlight was on Sonia, who occupies a rather privileged position of having her statements reported prominently without having to encounter unpleasant questions. Reporters at the Bangalore rally had rushed to the Iftar party hosted by former railway minister Jaffer Sharief the same evening at which Sonia was the chief guest to get a word with her.Had she spared a few minutes she would have been certainly quizzed about Bofors and Rajiv's links with Ottavio Quattrochhi.

But no one could venture anywhere near the chief guest. Security reasons were cited for keeping the press at bay. Everyone was left wondering why Sonia had given a new lease of life to the Bofors outrage. Back in Delhi, Congressmen close to her point out that it was a calculated gamble. The caretaker United Front government, which is looking at a possible post-election tie-up with the Congress, is not likely to make the Bofors papers public. The BJP, on the other hand, would have to sacrifice one of its longstanding supporters, a UK-based NRI industrial empire, which is also mentioned as a recipient of the payoffs.

The BJP is well aware that its "Ram versus Rome" slogan of 1991 vintage has failed to catch the popular fancy. The "Rome" catchword has little relevance at a time when the party itself is no longer talking of Ram. The UF is even less clear on how to tackle the Sonia factor. The North-South divide over Sonia is immediately apparent, although the official position is that it was the Congress in general and Sonia in particular who had forced an election. And though UF convenor Chandrababu Naidu made a trenchant attack on Sonia last week, declaring that if the UF came to power, it would enact a law denying Indian citizens of foreign origin the right to hold key public offices, spokesman Jaipal Reddy hastily clarified that Naidu's view was not "official".

It was obviously with short-term gains in mind and the confidence that the status quo on the Bofors papers would prevail till the elections that Sonia dared the government to reveal the truth and punish the guilty. Moreover, she seems to be quite certain that should there be a non-BJP government at the Centre she would have a key role in choosing the prime ministerial candidate and therefore her interests would be protected.

The Bofors statement has warmed the cockles of Congress leaders who were quick to tell the press that with a single stroke, Sonia had quietened the Opposition's charges. But there is speculation that there could well be a Bofors backlash should the CBI's SIT report, which names Rajiv, is made public. But the moot question is whether the UF government will risk pulling down the Congress trumpcard.

For the Congress, Sonia's entry has had a positive impact. Tired and defeated party workers have suddenly sprung to life. Enthusiasm runs high in party offices. The number of ticket-seekers has doubled. Those who had written off the party are having second thoughts. Points out Jaffer Sharief: "The leaders make their speeches and go away. That does not actually help the party. But Soniaji has managed to enthuse the grassroot workers. It is these workers who bring in the votes. She has virtually revived the party."

 In Hyderabad, too, the ticket-seekers have grown in numbers. Those once identified with Narasimha Rao have deserted the camp. Sonia is the new buzzword. Interestingly, not a single cutout or banner of the former prime minister and party president figured at the Hyder-abad rally. For many Congressmen, Sonia's diatribe against the Babri Masjid demolition effectively distanced her from Rao.

At the Kochi rally, the turnout was larger than at Bangalore and Hyderabad. The state unit has been upbeat ever since Sonia announced she would step out of her shell. The party mechanism spared no efforts in making her Marine Drive rally a huge success. In keeping with her campaign tone so far, she flaunted her now familiar credentials as the next-in-line of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

But her most singular achievement has been bringing together Kerala stalwarts K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony. They were both present to welcome Sonia. Both proclaimed her as their supreme leader. It was the rivalry between the two senior Congressmen which cost the party dear in the last elections. Now there is hope that with Sonia's emergence as a power centre, the old rivals may settle their differences. That is if she does not favour one against the other.

The actual impact of Sonia's entry vis-avis votes is too early to predict. All her meetings have been in cities; Congressmen say the second part of her itinerary will concentrate on small towns.

But for now, the Congress will be pleased with the effect that its star campaigner has had on partymen in Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The party is once again in the news and those who had earlier predicted that the Congress would manage less than 100 seats are doing a quick rethink. Sonia's southern foray was a success, but can she repeat the performance in the rest of the country?

With Y.P. Rajesh, A.S. Panneerselvan, Venu Menon, M.S. Shanker, Bhavdeep Kang & Frederick Noronha

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