SHE was her usual reluctant self, huddled with the delegates. But once the 15,000-odd Congress supporters chanted that they wanted her on the dais, Sonia Gandhi moved up. "I did not realise that I will have to speak here," she told a packed Netaji Indoor stadium in Calcutta. The next moment, she fished out a prepared text, replete with quotes from Rajiv Gandhi's speech at the party's centenary celebrations in Bombay in 1985. And held forth on how the party needs to rebuild bridges to the teeming millions, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the OBCs. Her appearance and the speech, the first from a party forum after her husband's assassination six years ago, injected instant hope in a beleaguered party. Salvation was here.
The crowd, imbibing that hope, roared that Sonia should take over the reins of the party. Congress boss Sitaram Kesri spouted his discomfiture: "I know what our opponents are going to say about your coming here. They do not realise your strength". And hastily added: "She has always been my inspiration. I am an elected president of the party and therefore an institution. I request you to maintain a clear link with the party." By declining rebel Mamata Banerjee's invitation, Sonia also sent a signal that she would only associate with the official Congress. "She has made it clear that she wants to play a more active role in the party. Maybe, she will even campaign for the party in future elections," claimed Oscar Fernandes, AICC general secretary, and once close to the family.
The Calcutta Raj Bhavan, where she stayed for a day, soon became the mecca for Congress leaders, with Kesri, N.D. Tiwari, Jitendra Prasada, Arjun Singh and a host of others making a beeline to attend on her. In one brief visit, Arjun Singh even got her support for the CWC election, a point he made public.
Having come this far, can she say no to politics any longer? "No," say sources in 10, Janpath. "She has started interacting with Congress workers in the party forum. She knows what they want". This gives rise to speculation that Sonia's 'active' role has given Kesri little option than including her in the CWC. "Yes, he has already approached her. She declined. But he is going to do it again," claimed a party general secretary. If she accepts the offer, her status will only be at Kesri's expense, not at his pleasure.
Senior leaders in the party admit that Sonia was largely responsible for hoisting P.V. Narasimha Rao to the prime minister's chair in place of Arjun Singh in June 1991. She had conveyed her choice through Satish Sharma, and Arjun Singh relented.
Her gameplan may not be very different. According to a senior party leader, she may decline Kesri's CWC offer, but will certainly participate in Congress activities vigorously. She will have more loyal MPs in the party in the next election on her side than Kesri and she will exercise her discretion. With elections looming large, Sonia Gandhi has finally emerged from the shadows.