" Oh, maa Telugu lo maatulu adaaru (Oh, she's spoken Telugu)," screams Manorama Shankar, 48, as Sonia kicks off in the local lingo in Hyderabad. That's no proof that Manorama will vote Congress, but it's a good indication that Sonia has begun pressing the right buttons after a drab debut in Sriperumbudur.
Okay, the extraordinary SPG-dictated security, her deep accent, her inability to speak any Indian language (she began Hindi lessons only two years ago) and the tendency of her translators to fly off at a tangent have created an impenetrable wall between her and the women she wants to reach out to. But, with her carefully-orchestrated 'vulnerable widow' act, Sonia is trying desperately to tap ma-in-law Indira's constituents in her (and the Congress') hour of need.
At an iftar party hosted by C.K. Jaffer Sharif in Bangalore, she skipped the men and proceeded to the women who took out currency notes, bus tickets, anything from their handbags, for her to touch and bless. And at her 10 Janpath durbars, Sonia studiously avoids city-slickers and reaches out to rural women. "Just like the Queen of England," says a political observer.
It's still early days to predict if women are warming up to Sonia G. Their number at the five meetings she has addressed so far has varied crazily. And most of them have been whipped up by campaign managers after 'Madam' reportedly expressed displeasure at the thin crowds on debut. But there's no doubt that her entry has provided the glamour to a campaign threatened to be dominated by boring, old men. And has given women, especially poor, illiterate ones, a figure with attributes they can all relate to: woman, widow, Gandhi. And the one attribute they all envy: her fair skin. " Tomato taraha ide avara banna (she's tomato-red)," says housewife Sarojamma, 37.
Forget the bitch brigade in Banjara Hills still hee-heeing at the prospect of an NRI becoming prime minister, Non-Resident Italian that is. Forget a (male) letter-writer's assertion that Sonia's tactics have shades of Hitler: studied silence, pointed indifference and a calculated waiting game. The point is, women are coming to watch Sonia break her "seven years of silence". It's another matter that none of them can get close to her and few can actually see her facial expressions from a distance. " Amma vara mukha nodoke aaglilla (I just couldn't see her)," says Kalyani Sundaram, 48. Sonia, yet so far.
And it's quite another matter that it's not her wooden, deadpan delivery that is attracting the crowds. A good many, as 42-year-old IT professional Shamala Padmanabhan says, are coming out of curiosity: to see up-close a face one hasn't seen; to hear a voice one hasn't heard.
But in this age of satellite television, Sonia's made-for-TV appearances are designed to tug at the nation's heartstrings. By reminding them at every step that half her family has died for the country and the other half is prepared to die, Sonia is striking a primal chord.
Okay, there is little spontaneous impact to her bombshells, the effect lost in translation. Okay, there're few signs of "Zindabad" emanating from their mouths when Congress women workers scream "Sonia Gandhi...." Yet the sight of Sonia doing her waving and smiling routine on the dias has an electric effect.Hands go up in unison; Lambada bangles jangling in the hot afternoon sun.
"J.H. Patel says just because she married one Indian, it doesn't mean she married the whole of India," says school teacher Susheela Rai, 38. "Meaning, she isn't Indian as she took Indian citizenship just over 10 years ago, meaning she shouldn't rule us. What have all the Indians who ruled us done for us?" When the cliches about the bankruptcy of leadership in a 113-year-old party turning to her for direction are exhausted, the plain reality is that to the Bharatiya 'naari' clinging sentimentally on to such values as family, Sonia is saying: Look, here is a chance to reconnect to The Family.
Says photographer Raghu Rai: "She's playing on emotions people relate to. Everywhere, she is drawing on specific examples involving her family in that city/state that they can remember." This may be Sonia's pitfall too. Her inability to talk real issues: housing, jobs.
In fact, much of Sonia's speech is mindless patter to women at her meetings. She talks of an RGF unit opening a Hyderabad office, none of whose beneficiaries would be caught dead within a mile of a public meeting. She talks of the "cynical exploitation" of the masses even as cellphone-toting partymen try to cool frayed tempers.
Indeed, Sonia's endless drone of her family's sacrifices, of her deep personal sorrow, is rather ironic to women who have made a million sacrifices; for whom sorrow is a way of life. "At least they made money in the process," is peanut-seller Durgabai's response. "What have we got in return?" But other responses will be music to Congress' ears: "They've politics in their blood," "They're the only family that can rule us," are the most common epithets. But even invigorated Congress workers feel "she should have come two months earlier".
It's with these women in mind that Sonia's believed to have asked Priyanka to change from a churidar into a saree for the Sriperum-budur meeting. After the impact she created there, Priyanka's name is mentioned in the same breath as Sonia's. "Let amma lead us first. I'm sure her daughter will follow," says Mukhtarunnis Begum, 62.
It would be foolish to predict if Sonia will swing this one for the Congress. As the celebrated editor James Reston says: "An election is a secret communion between a voter and democracy." It is sacrilege to peek. But there's little doubt she has revitalised a moribund setup. "We need to convert it into votes," says Margaret Alva.
But is the party smart enough to cash in? All across the South, there was A.R. Rehman's chart-buster 'Sonia, Sonia' from the suitably titled Rakshakudu (The Defender) just waiting to be tapped. One stanza western, one stanza Indian, it couldn't have been ordered better for Sonia. Not one place was it heard. Period.