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Sonia G's mix-up! Virendra Kapoor

Elusive Sonia; frightened Shiela

One politician who shies away from public speaking despite entertaining the thought of ruling India in the not too distant future is -- er, you guessed right -- Sonia Gandhi.

Given half an opportunity, the latter day Mrs G would skip a public speaking assignment.

Should it become impossible to wriggle out of such a commitment, her advisers go to any length to ensure that no other speaker shares the dias with her. Their fear: her 'reading' would contrast badly with the oral articulation of the fellow speaker.

At the recent National Union of Journalists convention, Sonia, after accepting an invitation to speak at the concluding day of the function, failed to show up. The NUJ had sent out invitations only after securing her consent.

The other speaker was Cabinet Minister Arun Jaitley, who as everyone knows, can hold his own against the best public speakers in the land. On a variety of subjects without the aid of a written text prepared by any of his aides.

Indeed, Sonia's aides suggested to the organisers not to club Jaitley and her in the same slot. Sonia was told as leader of the Opposition she would get priority and Jaitley would speak ahead of her.

This, in turn, would give her a chance to respond if the minister said something which did not meet her approval. She finally agreed to address the convention.

When the appointed hour arrived, Sonia made herself scarce. Filling in for her was Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit. The CM offered a weak apology for Sonia's absence, but said she had come armed with Sonia's speech which would be read out on her behalf.

As soon as Dixit began to read what was purported to be Sonia's speech, it became clear she had the wrong script!

Without mentioning the media, its changing role in the Internet age, the convergence of technology, etc, Dixit was highlighting the challenges before the Congress party, the need to strengthen it and the presence of blackguards who were out to undermine the unity of the organisation.

Could it be that Dixit had been despatched with a speech meant to be read out by Sonia to loyal Congressmen in the on-going campaign for the Congress president's election?

Since there was a clear mention of renegades -- the reference being to Jitendra Prasada -- trying to weaken the party, it was clear to the audience that the text had got mixed up.

However, Dixit was not one to stray away from the text. The Sonia loyalist insisted that as far as she was concerned she had come to read Sonia's speech and would not say anything in her capacity as Delhi CM. She was also unwilling to concede that there might have been a mix-up, with Sonia retaining the text meant for journalists and giving her the one meant for loyal Congressmen.

The lonely swamy

Delhi is a cruel city.

Here, everyone's worth is determined in terms of one's proximity to power. Those outside the power loop are treated as inferior members of the human race.

Not long ago, an invitation to Chandra Swami's birthday celebration at his ashram in south Delhi was much sought after.

From former prime ministers, serving state governors and diplomats to a host of MPs and senior bureaucrats... everyone who was anyone in the capital's power elite was keen to personally greet the self-styled 'godman.'

Not anymore.

Last week, Chandra Swami celebrated his 54th birthday at his Qutab Institutional Area ashram, but unlike previous years he hardly had anyone to celebrate it with.

Not even long-time loyalist, former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, cared to show up. Such is the slide in his fortunes that barring an occasional former MP, there was not a soul to greet the swamy.

A square peg in a round hole, yet again

New Delhi's babudom is yet to come to terms with the transfers of senior secretaries to the Government of India.

In particular, the changes at the finance ministry have startled many bureaucrats. What particularly baffled senior babus is the announcement that P G Mankad, after his retirement from the IAS next year, will move to Manila as executive director of the Asian Development Bank.

For a bureaucrat who had given the impression of being an interim finance secretary and whose CR specifically mentioned he should not be posted in any economic ministry, Mankad's post-retirement sinecure in Manila smacks of networking.

Earlier, the Vajpayee government sent then home secretary B P Singh to Washington as executive director at the World Bank, though Singh has no expertise in handling economic affairs.

Only Mishra

The all-powerful Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister and national security adviser, has too much on his plate, but is loath to share responsibilty with anyone else.

Defence expert K Subrahmanyam recently criticised Mishra for his excessive affection for power. At the foreign ministry you openly hear catty remarks about Mishra -- a former IFS officer -- playing super foreign minister.

The blame for the recent reshuffle of secretaries, particularly at the finance ministry, too was pinned on Mishra, though another Mishra -- Brajesh's journalist friend, R K -- was also given credit.

Prime Minister Vajpayee's silence in the face of mounting complaints of empire-building by his chief aide is intriguing.

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