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|February 19, 1998|
Campaign Trail/Sharat Pradhan
The Other Mrs Gandhi
Chalk and cheese. Or more accurately, Sonia Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi.
The one harps, all the time, on the sacrifices ma-in-law Indira and husband Rajiv Gandhi have made for the country -- including the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Meanwhile in Pilibhit, Indira Gandhi's other daughter-in-law refrains from even mentioning the name of the family she married into, and from which she parted ways shortly after the death of husband Sanjay, 18 years ago.
Maneka Gandhi, flying solo, managed in the interregnum to position herself as an environmental crusader and, in fact, even held that portfolio in the V P Singh-led government. Come election time, she is yet again engaged in a battle to retain the seat she has made her own -- this time as an Independent, albeit with active support of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Interestingly, Maneka refuses to allow son Varun to take any part in the campaign -- again in marked contrast to Sonia, who never attends an election meeting without at least one of her two children in tow. "I think children are too precious to be exposed to politics," she says, adding with characteristic confidence. "Besides, I do not have to make fervent appeals to people to vote for me, it is in their own interests to do so."
Her speeches are short, crisp and rather vain. "I did not come here to get re-elected as MP, I could have done that from anywhere," she asserts. "What I am asking you to do is vote for the development of this region."
For those who like to play the 'spot the difference' game, there is still more. Thus:
Speaking of Sikhs, no less than Maneka's own cousin, now estranged, V M Singh is camped in Pilibhit, exhorting the local Sikhs to vote against his cousin and in favour of rival candidate, Parshuram Singh of the Samajwadi Party.
V M Singh, a former MLA, has earned considerable credibility in the region thanks to his ongoing war against what he calls the exploitation of the sugarcane farmers, who are in abundance in the area.
What makes the situation piquant is that in the last election, Parshuram Singh was Maneka's chief opponent -- only, on that occasion, he contested on the BJP symbol. This time round he, anticipating that he would not get a BJP ticket, conveniently hopped over to the SP, which was in any event on the lookout for a candidate to take on Maneka.
The arithmetic seems to be against him -- the last time the two candidates faced off, Maneka won by 283,000 votes. However, the fact that he managed to secure 112,000 votes makes him the most viable candidate to take on Maneka.
Her landslide win in 1996 is being partly attributed to the backing of the Muslim community -- thanks largely to the open support of Mulayam Singh Yadav. This time round, with a SP candidate in the fray, that support base is expected to be eroded to some degree. Besides, Riaz Ahmed, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate in 1996, had polled 88,000 votes. Ahmed is now with the Janata Dal, while the BSP has fielded Anees Khan -- both of whom are expected to divide the Muslim votes further.
All of which means that Maneka has to concentrate on the Sikh voters to give her the edge over her rivals -- which in turn produces a puzzle. Thus far, Maneka has not mentioned, much less discusses, Sonia Gandhi's apology for Operation Bluestar.
In fact, judging by the lady's campaign style, it would seem that her goal is to retain her seat without uttering a single word, either pro or con, against the Gandhi name that she herself bears.
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