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November 29, 1997


Capital Buzz/Virendra Kapoor

Madame is not ready

The lady at 10, Janpath, contrary to the oh-so-many reports proclaiming her willingness to take the plunge, is not yet ready for politics.

So say 'sources close to Sonia Gandhi.'

Apparently, Congress hardliners who pushed party president Sitaram Kesri into playing dirty again had clearly misread the signals. A taciturn person at the best of times, Rajiv Gandhi's widow had given vent to her anger and anguish at the authorities' inability to unravel the wider conspiracy behind her husband's assassination. That was all.

But in their enthusiasm to settle personal scores, prominent Congress leaders created the impression that she was all set to take her 'rightful place at the head of the party.'

"But now, much to their embarrassment, Sonia has made it clear she is staying put," sources said, "And despite repeated attempts by Arjun Singh, Jitendra Prasada and Kesri she did not even obliquely suggest whether or not they should make good their threat."

Naturally, the hardliners are particularly upset at her stand. Just when they thought that they had succeeded in pushing Kesri into a corner, Sonia decided not to identify too closely with them!

Observers, meanwhile, say Sonia did the wise thing since a belated realisation dawned on her that whichever way the current crisis in New Delhi ended, the Congress would emerge from it with plentiful egg on its face.

Mr Hug!

While on Sonia, it is not in the least surprising that she is paranoid about her own and her children's security.

Sonia has told the SPG in no uncertain terms that neither she nor her two children -- Priyanka and Rahul -- would receive a shawl or garland from anyone. Her protectors have also learnt from experience that she frowns upon anyone -- and anyone -- trying to greet her with an embrace or a peck on the cheek. She prefers the distant namaste.,

Given caretaker Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral's penchant to greet all and sundry with a warm hug, the SPG showed an extraordinary presence of mind when they stopped him in the nick of time recently.

At a function to mark Indira Gandhi's birthday, Gujral charged towards Sonia, with a warm smile plastered on his face, and arms open enough to hug an elephant. Alarmed, Sonia signalled to the SPG detail who promptly stepped in front of her, stopping Gujral in mid-hug.

But nothing adverse ought to be read into Gujral's penchant for hugging. He routinely greets his ministerial colleagues Renuka Choudhary, Jayanti Natarajan et al in this manner.

Indeed, it is a sight to see when he bumps into his old pal, Opposition leader in the Delhi assembly, Jag Parvesh Chandra. The two hug and peck for what seems an unconscionably long time in full public view.

Why, Gujral did not even spare US Secretary of State Mandeleine Albright. On her recent visit to New Delhi, Gujral went at it with great gusto in the full glare of television cameras!

The hall of gossip

Thanks to the Congress, Parliament's central hall hummed with activity this last week. MPs, after shouting themselves hoarse in the two Houses, congregated there over endless rounds of subsidised fruit juice or coffee to speculate on the likely moves and countermoves by rival camps.

And in the nation's hall of gossip, the division in the Congress Party was all too visible. If Kesri was in the hall, his chief detractor Jitendra Prasada would be away in the Rajya Sabha or somewhere else. If Arjun Singh showed up, neither Kesri nor Prasada made themselves scarce.

Kesri used to spend long hours in the hall till he became the Congress president. He would order endless rounds of coffee and gulab jamuns for all those who came to partake in the banter and bonhomie.

Interestingly, all the accused in the JMM case, like Captain Satish Sharma, Bhajan Lal, Buta Singh etc, were seen many a time huddled together in a corner.

One Congress leader who rarely puts in an appearance is former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Gujral, in sharp contrast, was seen lingering for a while on his way from one House to the other.

Nothing straight here

Hardliners in Congress are determined to put the entire blame for the Congress's loss of face on Kesri.

Kesri, the old fox he is, is not so gullible. He has chalked out his own plans to get out of the soup. Hence his anxiety to humour Sonia.

Since N D Tiwari and Jitendra Prasada were old rivals for the same turf in Uttar Pradesh, Kesri asked the former to meet madame and complain about Prasada's alleged attempt to do a deal with the BJP.

Prasada's alleged meeting with BJP chief L K Advani at the farmhouse of R K Mishra, the wily backroom operator and editor of the Ambani-owned Business and Political Observer was sought to be used as proof of his perfidy.

Kesri also summoned the Congress chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa to ask them to keep an eye on the party MPs from their respective states.

Meanwhile, a friendly mole in the Intelligence Bureau kept Kesri fully informed about the BJP moves, especially the movements of senior leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani.

Capital Buzz