Target: Ambika Soni               Virendra Kapoor
   May 20, 2002

Congressmen never cease to remind me of lemmings. If one of them is going down, they try to drag the others down as well. The person now bearing the brunt of this lemming-like behaviour is Ambika Soni, whose star is on the ascent thanks to her proximity to party president Sonia Gandhi. Everyone who feels left out of Gandhi's parlour is gunning for her political secretary and tearing her reputation to shreds. Even her loyalty to the party and its boss is being questioned. Senior leaders, who would give their right arm to be in Soni's shoes today, have instigated a campaign of innuendo against her. And she cannot put a stop to this malicious campaign since it is being propagated through whispers and anonymous pamphlets.

Copies of a three-page computer-printed letter, addressed to the Congress president, have been mailed to members of the All India Congress Committee and certain journalists in the capital. The letter, purportedly written by a little known organisation called the Congress Workers Movement, bears the name of one mysterious Sneh Lata Singh, who claims to be 'a 1977 sufferer' at Soni's hands. It rakes up the case of the arrest of a journalist during the Emergency and charges Soni with being unreliable, nay, disloyal, since she blamed the said journalist's arrest on Sanjay and Indira Gandhi before the Shah Commission of Inquiry.

The fact that Soni was openly critical of Indira Gandhi during the time she had made common cause with Sharad Pawar when he first floated his Congress Party (Sharad) is cited as additional proof of Soni's behaviour as, to quote Singh, 'a quisling.' That, before making her way back to the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress, Soni was critical of the Italian-born party boss, the pamphlet says, can be borne out by more than one member of the capital's so-called 'cocktail crowd.'

'Ambition fulfilled... now Soni is a four-in-one -- general secretary, political secretary to the Congress president, chairperson of the AICC media cell and, last but not the least, a member of the Rajya Sabha,' says the pamphlet which, in all likelihood, is the result of fierce factional politics in the Delhi Pradesh Congress Party.

Soni strikes back

Since she is the flavour of the month, so to speak, Congressmen are also vying with each another to please Soni. It is not uncommon for even senior leaders like Arjun Singh and Manmohan Singh to seek Soni's advice in the Rajya Sabha before taking a position on a given issue.

In the Central Hall of Parliament, Congress MPs scramble to be seen in her proximity. At her home, there is a long queue of partymen, including some who are far better known and more senior than her, who are made to wait long hours before the lady grants a darshan.

Since Sonia plays hard to get, barring those unavoidable public platforms where she reads from pre-written scripts, it is Soni who has become the eyes and ears of the party boss. Hence her clout with partymen of all shades and seniority.

Jogi takes on Sonia

Remember Vincent George, the all-powerful personal assistant to the Congress president who has now been marginalised? Small wonder then, he resents Ambika Soni's rise the most. Even the partymen whose cause he had promoted are feeling let down.

In fact, George's protege and Chhatisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi is so unhappy with the recent change of personnel at the AICC level that he has begun to mumble unkind words about Sonia Gandhi's lack of grasp of organisational matters. Reports in a section of the media against the new Congress set-up emanated from Jogi's background briefing of friendly journalists.

Meanwhile, aping the ways of Indira, Rajiv and Sonia, Jogi marked his birthday late last month by plastering parts of New Delhi with posters bearing his photograph, wishing him a long life.

President Alexander?

Though the jury is still out on the new President, it does seem the chances of Maharashtra Governor Dr P C Alexander making it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan are far stronger than that of incumbent K R Narayanan. Alexander has the backing of Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and AIADMK boss J Jayalalithaa and is all set to be the official candidate of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. Which practically nixes Narayanan's chances of staying on at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Meanwhile, it seems Vice-President Krishan Kant is all set to go the B D Jatti way. Kant has none to sponsor him for President, despite the established precedent which calls for an automatic elevation of vice-president to President. Indeed, given the fact that the NDA is in a position to elect its own candidate as vice-president, Kant in all likelihood will find himself replaced by BJP's L M Singhvi.

Prabhu's protest

Union Power Minister Suresh Prabhu offered the Cabinet a weak, pro forma opposition to the Maruti disinvestment. This was because Prabhu was not really keen on doing so; in fact, he expressed his reservations only because his Mumbai-based Remote Control (Bal Thackeray) expected him to do so. The Remote Control wants a piece of the central action, but Prabhu has singularly failed to energise the Remote Control from time to time. But to keep the Tiger from growling too much at him, Prabhu has had to make these periodic compromises with his conscience.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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