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January 2, 1998


T V R Shenoy

Sonia Gandhi's decision came as a bitter birthday gift to the Communists

Who is afraid of Sonia Gandhi? The answer is 'M', 'M', and 'M' -- as in Moopanar, Mamata, and the Marxists.

To take them one by one, Moopanar has never been shy of proclaiming devotion to the Nehru-Gandhis. He didn't stop even after breaking away to found the Tamil Maanila Congress. Moopanar went so far as to say he would consider rejoining the parent Congress only if Sonia Gandhi took over.

"Madam," he told her, "we shall follow you with pleasure if you lead us. But don't ask us to accept any lesser commander." Neither Narasimha Rao nor Sitaram Kesri convinced him to change his mind.

Sonia Gandhi's arrival on the electoral platform has skewered Moopanar on the horns of a dilemma. It comes just as the TMC has renewed its alliance with the DMK, the one party that 10, Janpath simply can't stand.

Moopanar is the only man in the United Front to unhesitatingly welcome the lady. "It will," he claims, "help the Congress fight the BJP." But Sonia Gandhi's guns aren't directed against the BJP, they are turned on the DMK. And it will lead to all kinds of complications if the lady campaigns in Tamil Nadu for the Congress and against the DMK.

Moopanar is a torn man today. There is his lifelong habit of loyalty to the Family on one hand. And there is his realisation that an alliance with the DMK can fetch more votes than hitching the TMC to Sonia Gandhi's chariot.

Mamata Banerjee probably isn't as much of a devotee as Moopanar, but she was in the Congress long enough to absorb some bad habits. Till the moment she snapped ties with Kesri she never failed to announce that Sonia Gandhi was the only leader she recognised in the Congress. And, again like Moopanar, Banerjee said she would reconsider returning only when 10, Janpath took over.

But is her love for Sonia Gandhi greater than her hatred of the CPI-M? Banerjee has her own party, the Trinamool Congress, and has announced some of its candidates. Will self-respect permit her to return to the West Bengal Congress's Somen Mitra, a man she denounced as the "Marxists's B-team?"

There is one final hurdle in Mamata's way, something that Moopanar can afford to ignore -- age. Moopanar is over 70, but Banerjee is a stripling of 38. She may have as many as four decades of active politics before her. Will she throw them away to win a momentary pat on the back from Sonia Gandhi?

One small clue to her reaction comes from Mani Shankar Aiyar, another anti-Kesri rebel in the Trinamool Congress. He has denounced Sonia Gandhi's move as a "half-cocked decision." Calling someone crazy isn't exactly an indication of undying loyalty!

But it isn't just former Congressmen that are concerned about Sonia Gandhi hitting the campaign trail. So too are Banerjee's old foes, the Marxists. And this became all too apparent with the tone of the CPI-M general-secretary's statements on consecutive days.

"Don't write off the Congress!" was Harkishen Singh Surjeet's advice to the voters of India on Monday, December 29. Twentyfour hours later, the same man was snapping, "Do you think Sonia can save the Congress? Ask Congressmen."

Well, Moopanar thinks so. But that isn't the point. Until Sonia Gandhi stepped in, the Marxists had reserved their venom for the BJP. The Congress was patronised, even cultivated with the eye to post-poll formations.

But the lady's entry has clearly worried the Marxists. Sonia Gandhi has the potential to shift a few votes here and there in West Bengal and Kerala. The CPI-M must now decide whether to concentrate on attacking 'communalism' or 'dynastic rule'.

Taking on the Congress is the best way to protect the Communists's own turf. But that makes it tougher to create a new 'secular' front after the General Election. Either way, Sonia Gandhi's decision came as a bitter birthday gift to the Communists. (The Indian wing of the Communist party was created in 1925 just outside the AICC shamiana.)

But even if the three Ms don't know quite what to say, there was one unmistakable reaction -- from the people, not politicians. For almost a week, as the BJP visibly gathered strength, the stock market rose. But after Sonia Gandhi announced her entry depressed investors hammered prices down by almost 70 points in a single day!

T V R Shenoy

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