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January 30, 1998


T V R Shenoy

Why did Sonia back off from contesting the Amethi seat?

Frequent changes of costume, walking up and down the ramp, waving to the crowd... It began with Sushmita Sen, then it was Aishwarya Rai, who'll be the next poster-girl to win a crown? How about the Congress party's 'star campaigner'?

Her wardrobe is large enough to put any glamour queen to shame. She flaps her hands just as regally at the audiences down below. There is one thing, and only one, that distinguishes Sonia Gandhi's mode of campaigning from a beauty queen's sashaying. Pageant participants must answer at least one question, but the Rajmata of 10, Janpath responds to none!

But that won't stop people from asking. And one question puzzling even Congressmen is this: Why did Sonia Gandhi back away at the eleventh hour from contesting the Amethi seat?

The reaction from Sonia Gandhi's bhakts is on expected lines. ''No,'' they say, ''she had no plan to contest. Some news agency put out the story without confirming it in the right quarters.''

Bunk! Up to the afternoon of January 26, Sonia Gandhi planned to contest. 10 Janapth had obtained a certified copy of the voters list for the New Delhi to show that she is a registered voter (proof required by the Election Commission). Security personnel were alerted about a forthcoming visit to Amethi to file the nomination. The official announcement was to be made just after 'Madam' returned from the President's Republic Day reception.

So why did the goddess disappoint her devotees? Sonia Gandhi won't answer that question, but I have been able to piece together the story behind the story. Broadly speaking, there were four reasons.

First of all, Sonia Gandhi knew she wouldn't do her reputation any good by contesting. She had arranged for a private survey to be conducted in Amethi. The conclusion was that she would definitely win, but the majority wouldn't be terribly impressive (nothing compared to Narasimha Rao's mammoth victory in Nandyal in 1991).

Second, Sonia Gandhi and her advisors suspected, probably correctly, that Mulayam Singh Yadav was setting a trap for her. In 1996, the Samajwadi Party boss hadn't put up a candidate against the Congress's Satish Sharma. But in 1998, he announced well in advance that the Samajwadi Party would definitely contest Amethi, 'respect for Sonia Gandhi' notwithstanding. And a contest would pose all sorts of problems for the Congress.

Mulayam Singh being what he is, the possibility of his giving Sonia Gandhi a clean run was always on the cards. But in return for such a favour he would have struck a tough bargain in other constituencies.

Giving way would have laid Sonia open to the same charges made against Narasimha Rao -- sacrificing the interests of the party for personal profit. She can't afford such signs of weakness.

Third, even if the Samajwadi Party could be trusted that is more than Sonia Gandhi should believe of her own party. 10, Janpath fears that Sitaram Kesri and Sharad Pawar would instigate the media to ask embarrassing questions.

Currently, the lady's chosen method of electioneering is 'shoot and scoot'. (Remember the phrase? Rajiv Gandhi cited it as the reason for choosing the Bofors gun!) She speaks from high platforms, surrounded by the SPG and sycophants, with nobody permitted to ask questions. But candidates can't get away with such nonsense.

Fourth, Sonia Gandhi is worried about her skin. She doesn't, for starters, think that mingling with Indian crowds is safe. Especially not when the current head of the SPG is a certain Reddy.

Holidaying in the Andamans with the Quattrocchis, a speed-crazy Rajiv Gandhi ordered his armoured Ambassador to go faster. When Reddy pleaded helplessness, an angry Rajiv Gandhi told him to get lost. The upright officer refused to back off even when pressure was put on him to apologise. Sonia Gandhi is convinced that Reddy hasn't forgiven the Nehru-Gandhis for this humiliation. 10, Janpath has already asked I K Gujral to put an officer of its own choice, Wanchoo, in charge of Sonia Gandhi's security.

The fear of a negligible majority. The fear of being arm-twisted by Mulayam Singh Yadav. The fear of being trapped by mediamen acting at the bidding of Kesri or Pawar. The fear of insufficient security. Any one reason would have made Sonia Gandhi hesitate.

All four made it virtually certain that the Gandhis will ignore Amethi. So Sonia Gandhi's campaign style will be based firmly on Sushmita Sen -- minus the searching questions of course!

T V R Shenoy

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