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January 23, 1998


Sonia relives the Indira image at Maharashtra hamlet

E-Mail this story to a friend Savera R Someshwar in Nandurbar

It was, for Sonia Gandhi, a day of vindication. As she gazed from the circling helicopter at the nearly 250,000 Adivasi populace that had gathered to watch her, listen to her, breathe the same air as her, for the brief 1/2 hour that she graced Nandurbar...

It was the biggest rally that Sonia has addressed since she started campaigning for the Congress.

The mass strength with which the locals had turned out was a surprise, both to the organisers and election hardened journalists who were covering Sonia's foray into politics.

For there was no indication -- next door constituency Dhule woke up to a normal morning -- quiet, uneventful, with a few sundry cows and one solitary goat scattered around.

There was more excitement among the school students who were celebrating Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's birth anniversary than there was at the Congress headquarters.

Even the road to Nandurbar was silent -- as what was seen of the populace was more keen on making its way to the Friday market at Dhondaicha, 30 km away.

At Nandurbar itself, a solitary pink arch, bearing a solitary poster of Soniaji Gandhi, stood mute witness to the seeming apathy of the organisers.

All of which seemed to go well against City Congress president Mahadev Pardeshi.

But by noon, the ground was swollen with people, all eyes eagerly directed at the helipad built by the local Congress unit a couple of days ago.

Sonia was late, and even the arrival of Sharad Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal -- who had flown down to Dhule specially for the occasion -- did not do much to enthuse the crowd.

Then, at 1400 hours, someone spotted an orange and white helicopter in the distance. The crowd, which had by and large maintained a fairly disciplined front under the ministerings of local MLC Chandrakant Raghuvanshi, woke up. And shook off the stupor cast on it by the long-winded Bhujbal. 'Sonia Gandhi vijayee aso!'


'Sonia Gandhi ayee hain'

'Nayee roshini layee hain!!'

In fashion reminiscent of the late Indira Gandhi, the helicopter circled the huge meeting area before putting down at the helipad, and showering the crowd in a fine mist of red dust. A convoy of two white Ambassadors and a jeep conducted Sonia to the dais; whence she ran up to the stage in a manner that reminded onlookers of her mother in law.

"The people of this place," a Congress worker pointed out, "have always loved Indiraji. They know what it means to belong to a family that has sacrificed itself for the nation."

Sonia revived that memory -- with repeated references to her slain mother-in-law and husband. And laid down, for the first time, the social issues that the Congress would use as part of its election plank.

"They have died, but their dreams for the country live on in the heart of every Indian," she thundered. "For this is the time of battle, the time to squarely face the challenges before us. We need to progress... employment... emancipation of women, food... education... fight inflation. Only a stable government can do that. Remember, the Congress is your friend.... There are people who are trying to destabilise the country by raising issues of caste, religion and communalism. Don't let them do that. It is bad for the country. We need a permanent government. And it is only the Congress which has succeeded in giving the country nine permanent governments. So, please give your precious vote to the Congress."

Surprisingly, there were also references to leaders the Congress had long preferred to forget -- Sonia began her speech by paying tribute to Subhas Chandra Bose.

The roaring response of the crowd actually saw Sonia smile, interspersed with regular waves at the crowd. There were no disappointed faces as Priyanka Vadra did not put in an appearance. "Priyanka is a child," said an old Congress party worker patronisingly, "She is not yet ready to be a leader. It is Soniaji we want. Any woman who can bear the burnt of so many tragedies and still look to the comfort and wellbeing of her children, get her daughter married before she turns to support a floundering Congress can surely solve our problems."

All the Congress cadres expect Sonia to fight the election. "Of course, she will fight the election. She is the next prime minister, our leader who will lead the Congress to success and help us."

The largely farmer-based populace was none to happy with the performance of the BJP-SS combine in the state. "They have cheated us. Today, they tell us that the price of onions is high, but where were they when our crops were ripe? Only Soniaji cares for us, only she will solve our problems. And Maharashtra, we promise, will bring the Congress to power even if the rest of India does not."

Not all the populace feel that way. Nehali, a nearby village, boycotted the rally, and eighty per cent of the village plans to vote for the BJP. "We will convince the remaining 20 per cent. And, just watch, this whole village's 1,500 votes will go to the BJP."

They believe that everyone else has had a chance, and done nothing for them. They believe the BJP will be different.

As for some of those who attended the rally -- this is what they had to say, "She was good. It was nice to see her."

What about voting for the Congress? "Elections? We have not thought about that yet. Let's see what happens," they laughed.

Meanwhile, Sonia clattered in the helicopter in a final pradakshina before she flew to Bardoli in nearby Gujarat where Gandhi's satyagraha movement gathered strength.

An old woman, who saw Sonia's hands pressed to the tinted copter windows, smiled a toothless grin, "She is Indira's daughter after all, I will vote for her."

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