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Virendra Kapoor | May 26, 2004
The Sonia syndrome
The world at large might not have known the denouement to the political drama played out in public view in New Delhi last week, which threw up a surprise prime minister in Manmohan Singh. But there were some in Congress president Sonia Gandhi's inner circle who had seen the first draft of the script and were hoping against hope that its last act could be rewritten.
They tried their best to change the climax, but failed.
Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel and party general secretary Ambika Soni had an inkling of the shock coming from 10 Janpath. Indeed, Patel in interviews to a couple of journalists was non-committal whether Gandhi would accept the crown of thorns that is the prime ministership of India.
In an exclusive interview to India Abroad, the newspaper owned by rediff.com, Ahmed left the question of whether Gandhi would become prime minister unanswered, saying instead that it would definitely be a Congress party-led government. That, of course, wasn't saying much, because the interview was conducted on the day it first became clear that the Congress-led coalition would form the next government.
Similarly, Soni confided in some close friends hours after the election results were out on May 13 that her leader was not keen to head the next government. But in the hope that Gandhi could be made to reconsider her decision, she swore them to secrecy.
But this still does not answer the question why, if Gandhi had already decided not to accept the prime minister's post, was the country subjected to a week's uncertainty and a near meltdown on the bourses?
No convincing answer is forthcoming from her aides, though the uncharitable view is that she developed cold feet at the last moment looking at the enormity of the task ahead of her, of governing a difficult nation with notoriously troublesome allies from the unscrupulous casteists and tribal leaders of Bihar and Jharkhand inside her government to the opinionated Communists of West Bengal and Kerala trying to drive from the back seat.
Sushma left high and dry
Sushma Swaraj did not bother to inform Atal Bihari Vajpayee when she announced her decision to launch a 'countrywide agitation' against the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister and threatened to tonsure her head, wear white clothes, sleep on the bare floor, and eat only roasted gram so long as she remained in the post.
But at a meeting of party leaders where Vajpayee was present, her threat was on everyone's mind. Jaswant Singh implicitly muttered approval when he remarked that 'here my bahen Sushma is having to shave off her hair and become an ascetic while a foreign-born woman is preparing to rule us.'
Vajpayee uttered not a word, probably because he knew that the entire Sangh Parivar was unable to digest the idea of Gandhi becoming prime minister.
On May 17 evening, the first rumours of Gandhi not accepting the post were quelled by Congressmen. That day, Vajpayee had scheduled a dinner at his house for all the members of his council of ministers. Here again Swaraj was heard telling both Advani and Vajpayee how she would go around the country wearing white with her head shaven and how she would not rest till the foreign-born Sonia was ejected from the prime ministerial gaddi.
Everyone again heard her out quietly without offering a word in response.
But the next day Sushma found herself cheated of her newly found cause when Sonia Gandhi gave up the highest executive office in the land, which had been within her grasp.
The law is very clear. Inside the hallowed precincts of Parliament House, the writ of the Lok Sabha Speaker is supreme.
But Congressmen, drunk with dreams of power following their surprise victory, did not deem it necessary to go through the normal procedures to arrange for the live telecast of the great political drama that was to be enacted for a full three hours on the evening of May 18.
Speaker Manohar Joshi, though he had lost the election, was still in command till the constitution of the new Lok Sabha. He was not consulted. His deputy, P M Sayeed, too had lost the election, but there was no occasion for the Lok Sabha staff to seek his permission when Joshi was available.
As for Doordarshan, they did not require anyone to order them to telecast the proceedings of a party meeting live the moment it became clear that the Congress would head the next coalition government at the Centre. They virtually reversed their line and went out on a limb to curry favour with the new regime.
Incidentally, some Doordarshan anchors and reporters, who were handpicked by BJP bosses for appointment at fancy salaries, are now beating a track to the houses of the new rulers.
Bureaucrats change their colours with changes in the political establishment. A secretary to the Government of India who had endeared himself to his minister from the BJP lost no time in rediscovering his Bengali connections the moment it became clear that the Congress-led alliance would occupy the ministerial chairs in New Delhi.
Slated to retire in the next couple of weeks, he is now angling for a post-retirement sinecure or, better still, the Cabinet secretary's job, banking on the blessings of 'Pranabda' -- Pranab Mukherjee to the rest of us.
Another secretary to the GoI is ready with his list of bureaucrats whom he wants sent to Siberia for their alleged links to the NDA bosses. Since he claims links to the Gandhis, he might yet get one or two of his targets in babudom in some trouble.
Meanwhile, the return of former Union finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia is almost certain. Ahluwalia, now with the World Bank in Washington on a prestigious assignment, was said to be not too happy to be away from the home country even before Manmohan Singh emerged as the prime ministerial certainty. But now that Dr Singh has become prime minister, Ahluwalia's return to a key assignment in New Delhi is almost pucca.
The BJP take on her 'sacrifice'
Sonia Gandhi might be basking in her apparent renunciation, but the BJP leadership is convinced that the reason why she did not take up the post she most coveted lay in her anxiety to prevent her 'thorough exposure.' A party general secretary told a few reporters, off the record of course, that the CBI had received evidence linking the payment of at least $2 million to fugitive Italian businessman Ottavio Quattorocchi in the Bofors scandal. Again, Sharad Pawar and the DMK's refusal to join the government headed by her was a factor, this BJP leader claims.
Above all, alleges the BJP leader, it was her lack of political experience and intellectual wherewithal which obliged her to withdraw.
As he put it, "She was like a child who wanted an aircraft which her parents were unwilling to give it to her, but when somehow she got into the cockpit of the aircraft and grabbed the controls, she developed cold feet, fearing that not only would she jeopardise her own future but everyone else on board (read the Congress party, including her two children) would go down with her. This way she gets to keep the lien on the aircraft and might want to put Rahul in the cockpit given half a chance in the near future."
Once the hype over her 'sacrifice' dies down, you will hear more such allegorical tales from BJP leaders.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier