January 11, 1998
YEH HAI INDIA!
Priyanka steals the show!
A K Diwanji and Shobha Warrier in Sriperumbudur
She came, she saw, she fizzled out... That may well sum up Sonia Gandhi's speech at Sriperumbudur,
kicking off the Congress campaign countrywide. The constant
refrain in her speech to an audience of at the most 15,000 people, was
Rajiv Gandhi, her late husband, who, she said, had sacrificed
his life for the country and to uphold certain values.
If Sonia Gandhi's speech is any indication, the Congress campaign
will be based on emotion: Rajiv and the Nehru-Gandhi family.
She began the campaign by first paying tribute
at the samadhi of her husband, built on the
spot where Rajiv fell victim to a human bomb on May 21, 1991.
The press corps was out in strength, with photographers and cameramen
having taken up vantage positions early in the morning. No one knew the timing of her arrival; some said 0900 hours,
some 1000 hours, finally Sonia came in at 1145 hours IST,
by which time most of the media had gained a deep
tan. Walking briskly, flanked by her daughter Priyanka, already
hailed as the Future Queen of the Congress, and Tamil Nadu Congress chief K V Thangabalu, Sonia
entered the ground and walked briskly up to the memorial,
where a portrait of Rajiv and a burning lamp are placed
inside a glass canopy.
Her style was reminiscent of her mother-in-law: deep dull green sari draped
over her head, walking purposefully towards the memorial; no smiles,
no waving. Mother and daughter paid homage at the samadhi as the
photographers clicked away. Then the Gandhis
walked away, and prepared to head for the rally, where Sonia was
to deliver only the second public speech in her life.
The not-at-all impressive crowds at the ground must be disappointing
for the Congress leadership, and perhaps for the Gandhis. Only
a few days ago, former chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram's public meeting
attracted about 35,000 people. The crowds had clearly been brought in
by zealous Congress workers from neighbouring
districts. But they seemed truly happy at the prospect of having Sonia and
not Sitaram Kesri on their banners and posters! There were also
the faithful, the true Congress supporters, who hailed and cheered
Sonia and Priyanka as one might the Next Coming.
Cries of "Sonia Gandhi zindabad"
and "Thaye, kuppathungo (save us mother)" rent the air,
as many Congress workers charged themselves up to a
frenzy. A live band provided a litany of popular tunes, with lyrics appropriately invoking
Sonia as mother. Huge cutouts of famous Congress leaders
were placed around the ground. Understandably, the biggest cutout
was of Sonia, towering 25 feet into the air; strangely,
the smallest was of Mahatma Gandhi, at about 12 feet!
Sonia entered, and people stood up -- if only to get a better view.
With the dais placed just a few feet above the ground for
security reasons, many people at the back of the audience were
unable to see clearly. By now it was past noon, and the dry south
Indian heat was awesome. So hot
was it that some women, many of them old, left right
after Sonia took her place on the dais, and before she had
even uttered a syllable.
Sonia began her speech in Tamil, and the crowds were clearly
pleased at the gesture. She then spoke, rather impassively, in
English which few were able to follow, about her Indian roots;
her reasons for entering
politics; and the sacrifices of the Gandhis, especially Rajiv,
for the Congress. Sonia's style of speaking was undramatic, like
a school teacher in a classroom, made in a state which had a film
star as chief minister, and where drama is a part of daily
political discourse. It was, however, brought to life by the translator who
dramatised and altered the speech wherever he thought necessary. While speaking
of her husband's death, Sonia mentioned it matter-of-factly;
the translator's voice quivered with emotion as he mentioned Rajiv's martyrdom. It got the applause and
cries of "zindabad;" the votes remain to be seen!
Congress leaders spoke of how only Sonia and
her daughter Priyanka could save the Congress and India, and that
she must take up the mantle of prime ministership. There was no
other choice, no other person except thay! (mother).
But Sonia did not wear a happy expression. She looked
uncomfortable and ill at ease. Priyanka in contrast seemed to be enjoying
the adulation, and the crowds. Far more spontaneous, she waved
at the end and smiled away.
Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law greeted the crowds a happy
Pongal (which falls on January 14, 15 and 16), and ended her speech
with a word of thanks in Tamil! Applause. Then the coup de grace.
Priyanka went up to the mike and said, "All of you, vote
the Congress" in Tamil.. Even more applause. And certainly,
Priyanka's Tamil accent was far superior's to Sonia's rather European
Tamil and English.
Traffic on the important Madras-Bangalore highway outside the
ground had been diverted, and as the Gandhis left, Congress
workers went berserk and dashed towards them, only to be held
back by the huge police contingent. Policemen
and women were hauled from all over the state, including a batallion of the Rapid Action
Force, for the rally. The
police lined the highway right up to the Raj Bhavan in Madras, where
the Gandhis were staying before they caught a flight back to Delhi in the evening. Sriperumbudur, a sleepy town until
Rajiv Gandhi died there, is 150 km away from Madras.
Perhaps the happiest people around were those who owned tea and cold
drink stalls in the town. After the rally was over, the crowds
rushed across to quench their parched throats. The trees were
festooned with banners and buntings of Sonia and Rajiv; no other
Congress leader existed. Sitaram Kesri clearly belonged to another era, perhaps
Sonia pumps sentiments into her 'vote Congress' plea
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