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January 12, 1998


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'Congressmen may wait on Sonia at will, but time and events won't'

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

She impressed the audience, though the crowd itself was not impressive -- but how far can her maiden political speech at Sriperumpudur take Sonia Gandhi? And how far can the solemnity of Rajiv Gandhi's memory and the sobriety she associated with the occasion ward her from the treachery and tussle of realpoliti once her detractors start taking her on in public?

A lot of preparation seems to have gone into Sonia's maiden speech. Besides the thought and time that went into her decision to enter politics, her team reportedly burnt quite some midnight oil at the Madras Raj Bhavan on Saturday. Thus, she belied the belief that she would come with a prepared speech from Delhi and deliver it without consulting local Congress leaders.

However, Sonia did go through a draft which Tamil Nadu Congress president K V Thangabalu, who is a known Sitaram Kesri accolyte, prepared on her behalf. But she was not impressed and chose to dictate her own speech, when a re-draft, prepared by another local Congress official, also failed to win her over.

The 'Thangabalu draft', sources say, had made direct references to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, not to mention the Jain Commission report. There was also the usual quota of promises to the youth and women, promises to bring down the soaring prices and the like. Sonia only touched upon the last of these, with the result that the xerox copies of the draft made out for the press by an overzealous Tamil Nadu Congress functionary had to be dumped in the dustbin.

Sonia is also said to have summoned former TNCC president Kumari Anandan for translating her speech, when a draft which Thangabalu made, again, came a cropper. A writer of some standing, Anandan used to translate the speeches of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi during their visits to the state. He could add emotion and drama to the speech, even when it was missing in the original.

Talking of drama, Sonia is also known to have had a dress rehearsal at the Raj Bhavan, marking the pauses for the translator. Anandan, however, was so overcome by the occasion that he had to blink back tears before carrying on with his job at Sriperumpudur.

So meticulous was Sonia that she is also said to have asked daughter Priyanka Vadhera to change into a sari when the latter appeared in a churidar before motoring down to Sriperumpudur.

'She won't have time for this kind of preparation before making every speech,'' said an informed source. 'Congressmen may wait on Sonia at will, but time and events won't. We will have to see how she handles herself under pressure before coming to any conclusion about the Congress's chances."

Besides, he pointed out, Sonia's political adversaries would not be as charitable to her as the Sriperumpudur crowd. And she will be forced to react once they start attacking her.

He conceded that Sonia had the Nehru-Gandhi way of 'communicating with the masses.' But how many people will get to hear her if the Congress keeps organising such poor shows?

"There seems to be a general lack of public apathy towards politicians," he said, "That was very evident from the absence of bystanders to have a glimpse of Sonia on her one-plus hour drive between Madras and Sriperumpudur.''

Sources said Sonia herself was upset at the state party's failure to ensure a bigger turnout.

For all this, however, she succeeded in keeping her friends happy, and adversaries jittery. She made an oblique reference to the BJP and also the Congress leadership -- the party will come back to power under an 'efficient leadership'. She also brought some relief for the Tamil Maanila Congress, now in the DMK's company, by not referring to the Jain Commission report.

TMC founder G K Moopanar, who usually receives Sonia personally or at least sends a party delegation, refrained from doing both this time. He himself was away in the districts, assessing his party's electoral chances. And his followers had no instruction about the matter.

''That makes sense,' a Congress leader said, ''After all, we are on opposite sides, at least till the poll is over. A TMC delegation waiting on Sonia would have embarrassed and irritated the DMK, and sent out wrong signals to the voter about the DMK-TMC alliance."

Moopanar, however, had called on DMK supremo M Karunanidhi only on the eve of Sonia's visit. "Karunanidhi is the leader of the alliance,' he declared for the benefit of the press after the meeting.

Even while en tour, Moopanar has been referring to the DMK-TMC alliance without fail, asserting the combine will sweep the poll. A message meant for the voter that Moopanar will not part company with the DMK at the sight of Sonia?

Sonia may visit Tamil Nadu again on the second leg of her campaign tour next month. She is then expected to address public meetings at Pondicherry, Coimbatore, Madurai, and possibly Tiruchi. The plans, however, will be finalised only after assessing the impact of the Sriperumpudur show and the consequent concerns of the TMC.

"After all," said a Congress source, "any setback for the TMC-DMK combine will only help the BJP-AIADMK alliance. That will be bad for us."

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