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February 19, 2000
Sonia is a big hit in Jhajjar
Tara Shankar Sahay in Jhajjar (Haryana)
A sea of hands rose to wave frantically at the approaching chopper. It came in, circled the large gathering once and a roar greeted it.
The white and orange Pawan Hans helicopter made for the hastily-chalked helipad, flying over the media enclosure, descending in a dust-storm that engulfed the area right up to the dais.
The 15,000-plus gathering this afternoon in this small town near Rohtak was there to hear Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Party managers had pulled out all stops to make her public meeting a success. And it was.
As the chopper flew over, reporters ducked for cover. The large rotor blades whipped up a gale-force wind, overturning chairs, sending Congress banners flying and bathing them with a thick layer of dust.
But the cheering gave way to clapping when Sonia Gandhi, clad in a mustard saree and brown shawl, alighted from the aircraft.
Local party leaders Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his colleagues greeted her as she made for the dais.
The brief introductions over, she approached the microphone, smiling and waving to the gathering as they shouted slogans of 'Sonia Gandhi zindabad'. Then she got down to business.
Many veteran locals swore the Congress chief had inherited the mannerisms of her illustrious mother in-law Indira. She waved the same way, had the same dignified posture, the same smile... The crowd was really getting its money's worth.
She quickly got down to the lack of development in Jhajjar and said that it was her mother in-law who had given the Haryanvis a separate state so that they could embark on the road to prosperity. But this hadn't happened because self-seeking politicians had blocked development in the area, she said.
She said that Haryana was a leading producer of foodgrains but that successive non-Congress governments had undone whatever her party had done in this area.
Sonia alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-Indian National Lok Dal had encouraged land-grabbing, corruption and spawned "a reign of terror".
She referred to the infamous Meham incident, adding that her late husband Rajiv had visited the area to ascertain how law and order had deteriorated.
The reference to lack of employment opportunities, facilities for farmers, insecurity of women, dalits and weaker sections was uncannily reminiscent of Indira's attack on the Opposition parties.
Then, Sonia shifted focus to the government at the Centre.
"External forces are applying relentless pressure on the country, casteism is rampant, as is corruption under this central government," she alleged. She said the Vajpayee government was now trying to help government employees join the RSS and that her party would never tolerated it.
"Did our freedom-fighters make their sacrifices for such a government at the Centre," she asked, adding that now it now wanted to tamper with the country's Constitution.
She said parliamentary democracy had thrived in the country because the Constitution had worked.
"The Constitution has enabled governments to be formed and governments to be thrown out," she said, asking the gathering to beware of the designs of the Vajpayee government.
Sonia's reference to her late husband, her mother in-law and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru did not sound insincere because her delivery carried it off, much like Indira Gandhi's did. The repeated slogans in Sonia's favour bore testimony to her appeal.
"The Congress promises that it will live up to what it had said and we will implement our policies to help the farmers in this state. If farmers are happy, the entire country is happy," she said, before requesting that they vote in the Congress by a massive majority.
Her impassioned speech lasted 14 minutes and it was apparent that the crowd wanted more. She began waving and the people responded almost hysterically.
If this public meeting is any indication, the Congress chief's popularity has grown.
She made her way to the chopper to heli-hop to another public meeting in the state. Amidst the frenzied slogan-shouting, the crowd broke the bamboo enclosures and rushed towards the helipad. Many were pushed back, none-too-gently, by the police.
The chopper rose slowly, but the people forgot about the dust this time. They ran below the rising helicopter, smiling and waving at the Congress chief. It circled the field once and then disappeared in the horizon.
" Yahan par Soniaji ka lahar hai (There is a Sonia wave here)," said Chaudharu Sohan Singh, a farmer, sitting astride his tractor.
"Iss baar Congress baazi maar le jayegi (This time the Congress will win)," he said.
At least a dozen others echoed Sohan Singh's views, with a certitude that the Congress chief could not have been assured of earlier.
The question, of course, remains whether Sonia's evident popularity, as seen in Jhajjar this afternoon, will necessarily translate itself into votes.
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