Sonia Gandhi: I believe that you are taking over as president. That’s what I have been reading in the papers.
A.K. Antony: No madam, I have no desire to head the party. Sonia Gandhi: Then please work for the unity of the party.
THIS is how the Congress’ Mr Clean narrated his meeting with Sonia Gandhi to West Bengal Congress MP Priyaranjan Das Munshi. The Sonia-Antony tete-a-tete took place a few days before the September 23 Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting where Sitaram Kesri was chosen interim party president. Sure enough, before flying out of Delhi, Antony was telling his senior colleagues in the party that he was going back to Kerala to build up the Congress in his home state.
Even during his last visit to Delhi—which was accompanied by much speculation that he was the natural choice to succeed Rao—he refrained from making any tall statements. And, at the end of the day, according to a source close to Antony, he surprised everyone by refusing the party treasurer’s post offered to him. Says the source: "Any post was his for the asking. But he refused saying he has a lot work to do in Kerala." That Antony is held in high regard is understandable. Not only is he untainted by corruption charges, many Congressmen see the diminutive leader from the South as a detergent which can cleanse the Congress of all its evils. As humble as he is soft-spoken, Antony doesn’t give the impression that he is a kursi-chaser, or one who sticks to the chair come what may, as the rest of his ilk do.
And he is above controversy. On the one occasion when controversy seemed to be at his doorstep, Antony slammed it shut with characteristic elan. As civil supplies minister in the Rao cabinet in 1994, Antony resigned without a second thought over the sugar import scandal. This, at a time when Rao was vociferously defending Sukh Ram in Parliament over the telecom tangle. No amount of persuasion by the then prime minister to take back his papers could convince Antony to stay on.
Yet, for all the goodwill, when the Congress presidentship fell vacant last fortnight, he refused to make the requisite moves to muster support although the grapevine has it that Sonia was not averse to Antony heading the party in its hour of crisis. On the other hand, Antony probably knew what he was up against. As many as 12 of the 18 cwc members were Rao’s men. Rao, for obvious reasons, wanted a weaker, more pliable party chief, and Kesri was more suited for that role than Antony. Also, support for Antony was not overwhelming even among the six anti-Rao cwc men. His statemate, K. Karunakaran, reportedly led the opposition to Antony’s candidature.
Call it lack of killer instinct or plain humility, it’s what has made Antony something of a hero. Back home, Antony is known to be the master of the art of low profile. Though he worked for it, he conveys the impression of being distinctly uncomfortable with fame. He is what the pundits will say a successful politician should not be. He is not media savvy, does not dish out quotable quotes and refuses to sit for photo sessions. He has told many a photographer that he is not averse to being clicked but will not waste time posing.
During his last stint as chief minister, he lived in a two-bedroom house and became a legend of sorts for the austerity he practiced and preached. His wife, Elizabeth, sees nothing wrong in hopping on to a city service bus every morning and going to her workplace. Antony’s two sons go to school with other kids in an autorickshaw. Chief ministership did not bring luxuries and privileges for the Antony family. His style of functioning also underscores this penchant for simplicity.
As chief minister and now as leader of Opposition in the Kerala assembly, his instructions to his staff are very clear: do not waste money. Therefore, his secretary likes to make long distance calls after 9 pm, when the telephone tariff is a quarter of what it is during the day. With Antony at the helm, refreshment expenses for cabinet meetings plunged from Rs 6,000 per sitting to Rs 200. He told his colleagues that a five-course meal was not called for and a cup of tea and a vada was all that would be served.
Food for thought?