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January 20, 2001
The Rediff Special/ George Iype
Atal Bihari Vajpayee's undoing will be Sonia Gandhi's doing -- or so hopes the lady.
"We will bring down the government," thundered she at the All-India Congress Committee plenary session in Bangalore.
And so she will. If she can.
But can she?
Gandhi's generals, whom rediff.com quizzed soon after her clarion call, hoped so -- though they had no clue about what alternative they would offer the country.
"Our immediate demand is the Vajpayee government's resignation on moral grounds," Congress Working Committee member Madhavrao Scindia elaborated. "An alternative will shape up after its fall."
Congress general secretary and Gandhi's close aide Ambika Soni too echoed the sentiment: "Let this government go. People want change. People want a Congress government at the Centre."
Party spokesperson Jaipal Reddy agreed, "We want this government to quit. As to an alternative, we will cross that bridge when we come to it."
Not the wisest of words. But then, you can't expect anything better with a 53-year-old novice, who seems to posses little foresight, at the helm.
Gandhi was as lost about her plans as the rest of the Congress. Does she expect a Congress-led government to take over? Or a mid-term poll?
"I am not an astrologer," she replied.
So she is not. Neither is she a politician. Her party continues to be long on rhetoric and short on ideas -- as the two-day AICC session proved once again.
It also underlined another thing: that the average Congress worker is fed up with their party president, who reads out her speeches in heavily-accented Hindi.
"Sonia is a spent force. She has lost her charisma, has no leadership quality. The AICC session would have been a drab affair but for the tehelka expose," said a party functionary.
"The tragedy," he continued, "is not that she has not been working wonders for the party. But that as Opposition leader, she kept her mouth shut for four days after the tehelka revelations."
Many in the party felt that as Opposition leader, Gandhi should have called a press conference to hit out at the Vajpayee government the day tehelka.com came out with the tapes.
Press conference? But that is something India's Opposition leader fears. So whether it is a national calamity or the Kashmir cease-fire, you can count on her to keep mum.
On April 6, she will complete three years as the president of the country's oldest political party. During her tenure, despite two general elections, she has been unable to inspire her party workers.
She has not given any interviews to newspapers or magazines. She airs her views on television. She never delivers extempore speeches.
Three years is a long time to learn the art of public speaking, of studying issues the party should take up, of confronting the press -- but Gandhi is yet to arrive.
"Silence continues to be Sonia's weapon," commented a young Congress leader from the South.
In the three years, Gandhi's coterie hasn't changed. It is a set of people whom honest hardworking Congressmen hate: Arjun Singh, her political advisor, Ambika Sonia, Makhanlal Fotedar, Shiela Dixit... and her personal secretary V George, who feeds her the Dos and Don'ts of politics.
"Sonia has been chained in an impregnable fort where she listens to only a few and acts according to her wishes. It is no wonder that she has not been able to grow into a matured Opposition leader," said a senior Congress leader who was once close to Gandhi.
He added, "Now that Sitaram Kesri, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada, the only leaders who spoke and acted against Sonia are no more, her silence will continue."
Gandhi, however, is credited with keeping the Congress united. "That is the single most important achievement of Sonia since she took over," claimed senior CWC member A K Antony, one of her defenders.
But didn't Sharad Pawar and Mamata Bannerji break away from the party after Gandhi became president?
Antony paused before replying. "Yes," he said. "But everyone has to go by the party discipline. Those who cannot, goes."
"The so-called political acumen, strategy, and vision are things which one learns when one is dragged into political circumstances," Antony added. "Wait, you will see our strategy in the coming days. We will transform the tehelka effect into the fall of the government."
Despite such claims, there are many in the party who fear a repeat of Gandhi's political drama in 1999. After the coalition government fell, Gandhi had declared from outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan: "We have the majority numbers. We will form the government."
Two weeks later, neither could Gandhi produce the required number nor unite opposition parties.
Operation Oust too could go the same way, some Congressmen felt.
Design: Dominic Xavier.
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