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'Sonia is no goongi gudiya'

Last updated on: November 17, 2011 12:29 IST

'Sonia is no goongi gudiya'

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Vinod Mehta, the Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine, is one of India's best-known journalists.

His remarkably candid autobiography, Lucknow Boy: A Memoir, offers a ringside view of many major events in recent times, brims over with wit, wisdom, scandal and gossip.

The book features stories behind the reportage Mehta has brought before a fascinated public, from the alleged mole in Indira Gandhi's cabinet, to the cricket match-fixing scandal, to the Radia Tapes.

Here, Vinod Mehta recounts his encounters with Sonia Gandhi: An intimate portrait of the rectient Congress leader.

My many gaffes include one where I foolishly invited a snub from the US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. President (Bill) Clinton had come visiting during the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee regime and at a Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, the famously no-nonsense Ms Albright was looking for her place on the seating chart.

'I am sitting next to Sonia Gandhi!' she exclaimed. Standing behind her, I offered a piece of gratuitous advice. 'She doesn't talk much.' The US secretary of state looked at me suspiciously and replied, 'Oh, doesn't she?' in a tone which suggested I should know who I am talking to.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India: Lucknow Boy: A Memoir by Vinod Mehta. Viking. Rs 499.

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Image: Lucknow Boy: Candid. Controversial. Sensational. Typically Vinod Mehta

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'For the BJP, if the 27 Down from Nagpur is late, it is Sonia's fault'

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Readers of Outlook take much joy in calling me a shameless Sonia chamcha. Less trenchant critics give me credit for general holding forth against all and sundry bar one: The Holy Family. In the interests of brevity, and also because of my aversion to folks who pose as grievously 'misunderstood', I am not going to deny either allegation. But I will explain briefly.

If you are an editor, and have been one as long as I have, you cannot go through life disliking every politician. You need to like a few in order to remain sane. Otherwise you end up as a grouchy misanthrope.

There are plenty of allegations, and sufficient ammunition in the public domain inimical to Sonia Gandhi, for me to threaten to shave my head a la Sushma Swaraj: Dynasty, foisting of Rahul, Quattrocchi, shady family in Orbassano, etc, etc. For the BJP, if the 27 Down from Nagpur is late, it is Sonia's fault.

So, while I will not use the available ammunition, let me say I am not unaware or dismissive of the 'serious charges' lobbed at the Congress president by individuals who have more credibility than you-know-who.

I fall in the 'Don't Know' category. Therefore, I am going to limit myself to what I do know as a result of scrutiny and (limited) personal interaction.

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Image: Sonia Gandhi

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'Sonia is singularly well-informed about what is going on in her party'

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Since a memoir is close to a last testament, a lie would cost me heavily at the Pearly Gates.

Consequently, I need to state upfront that I have met the lady on a one-to-one basis less than half-a-dozen times in the past seven years. So much for my having any kind of close relationship or special interest in her.

Again, and this may come as a further surprise to those convinced I am a '10 Janpath Editor', I have never asked her for a Rajya Sabha seat or a Padma Shri or an ambassadorship or a party ticket. Neither has she offered me one.

To set the record absolutely straight, I did beg her for one favour. When Outlook was due to celebrate its tenth anniversary, I requested her to preside over the function. She obliged.

For what it is worth, here is what I make of her. I have found Sonia singularly well-informed about what is going on in her own party and other parties -- even the titbits and the private lives of persons she has appointed to high office.

A 30-minute meeting with Sonia would significantly augment the fund of Coomi Kapoor's gossip column which she so meticulously prints in the Indian Express every week.

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Image: Sonia Gandhi

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Sonia takes extra care to ensure Manmohan Singh is never seen to be undermined by her

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Sonia is no goongi gudiya(dumb doll). Since 1997, when she hesitantly entered public life, her grasp of the ins and outs of national politics has become formidable. Sure, her perspective is largely based on what is good for her party, but she is also a realist and can be brutally objective.

The way she dealt with family retainer Natwar Singh after he was caught in the Iraq oil scam underlines her conviction that loyalty to The Family cannot be a justification for plundering public coffers. A learning period did exist, during which her Hindi (allegedly her Hindi speeches are written in Roman script), and her less-than-sure political touch, received considerable attention and ridicule.

It reached its zenith and also its closure in April 1999 when she appeared outside Rashtrapati Bhavan announcing, 'Yes, we have 272,' to form a government, on the assurance of the unreliable Mulayam Singh Yadav. That ended the goongi gudiya chapter.

Because she is constantly accused of backseat driving vis-a-vis her prime minister, Sonia told me she takes extra care to ensure Manmohan Singh is never seen to be undermined by her. 'I always arrive five minutes before he does at public functions, and I always leave after him,' she said, emphasising how conscious she is of correct protocol.

Before Mr Narendra Modi throttles me, yes, this does not mean the prime minister is a free agent, but it also does not mean he is a chained captive.

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'Sonia travels the extra mile to make sure she carries everyone in the party'

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To Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan Singh's first press adviser and dedicated spreader of mischief between party and government (read PM and Sonia), she gave a long rope. 'Manmohan has three daughters, no son; so he treats Sanjaya as a son,' she explained.

However, Mr Baru's record and his attempts to cause a rift, especially during the nuclear deal negotiations, had not escaped her. She knew every detail of the games he was playing, but preferred, out of regard for Manmohan, to look the other way. She even knew that on the day the BJP lost power in 2004, Sanjaya had written a panegyric on Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sonia travels the extra mile to make sure she 'carries everyone in the party'. Frequently, she postpones or abandons harsh action in order to persuade the errant individual to fall in line.

In this act of friendly persuasion a few sops are usually thrown in. Jaganmohan Reddy, son of YSR, was offered a variety of options both at the state and the Centre, but he insisted on immediate transfer of the CM's chair.

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Image: Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving president of the Congress party

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'She has been known to make a 360 degree U-turn on contentious issues'

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Her anxiety to maintain stability and harmony in the Congress was to be exacerbated in May 1999 after the revolt of Sharad Pawar and P A Sangma on the foreign origin issue.

Although Messrs Pawar and Sangma's calculation misfired spectacularly, it made the Congress president even more aware of the criticality of the big tent philosophy which had served the party so well, allowing leftists, centrists, rightists, besides those with leadership ambitions, to coexist.

A decision to expel a Congressman or Congresswoman is an option of last resort.

The allegation, then, that she is a headstrong dictator, ruling by whim and caprice, is way over the top. As long as her personal position and her family's is not threatened, Sonia Gandhi massively over-consults to establish consensus.

Here is one instance. A prominent chief minister in one of India's most important states was not just incompetent and lazy but amassing vast wealth. Every day he continued in office hurt the party.

'He will be removed in a few days, let the Diwali holidays get over,' she told me. Actually, he stayed for 18 months because that is how long the consultative process took.

On any contentious issue, Sonia's first reaction is invariably, tactically and ethically, sound. Sadly, by the time she has finished talking to her advisers and senior leaders, she has been known to make a 360 degree U-turn.

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Image: The allegation that Sonia is a headstrong dictator, ruling by whim and caprice, is way over the top, says Vinod Mehta

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'She fought to keep her husband out of politics'

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Definitely, no over-consulting in matters which affect her personally. Then she listens only to her children and a decision is usually reached overnight.

When Sonia decided to stand down in May 2004 and appoint Manmohan Singh, her advisers constituted Rahul and Priyanka. Again, in 2006, when she announced her resignation from the Lok Sabha in the office-for-profit controversy, the same decision-making procedure was followed.

From her mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi) she learned two lessons. One, if you wish to win elections, you woo the poor rather than the fickle middle class. Forget ideology or commitment to 'wipe every tear from every eye'; mathematically the aam-aadmi approach makes electoral sense -- as results have demonstrated.

The other lesson Sonia took from Indira Gandhi, perhaps not by word of mouth, concerns women, married women. They pay a heavy personal price if they take up politics full-time. Jawaharlal Nehru's demands for companionship and for acting as his social hostess, which resulted in the break-up of Indira's marriage, undoubtedly had a strong impact on Sonia.

Which explains the tigerish tenacity with which she fought to keep her husband out of politics, and her own hesitation about taking any official position in the Congress after Rajiv's assassination. Thus Priyanka, despite the clamour, despite her undoubted charisma, has not so far been a contender. For Sonia, as she told me, her daughter's marriage and responsibilities as a mother of young children come much before any call to 'national duty' or 'save the party'.

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Image: Sonia, says Vinod Mehta, has learnt from her mother-in-law: If you wish to win elections, you woo the poor rather than the fickle middle class

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'Privately, she is both funny and irreverent'

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If you wish to make a permanent enemy of Sonia you must have a history, or even a single instance, of betraying or bad mouthing her husband. Then you are beyond the pale. To that extent she is clearly biased.

From this follows her protective instincts for all the Nehrus and Gandhis. Even so, in the pecking order Rajiv is the first among equals. She is the keeper of his flame.

Privately and publicly, she is inordinately reserved and cautious. Her reluctance to give media interviews or speak more often on burning issues stems largely from her self-effacing personality. One reason why Sonia gets on so well with Manmohan Singh is because they are temperamentally similar.

Politics still remains slightly foreign to her. Some years ago, I met her at a chic eatery in Khan Market where the birthday of one of Rajiv's school chums (Romi Chopra) was being celebrated. I have never seen her more at ease or relaxed.

Wearing a salwar-kameez, seated with her daughter and son-in-law, and listening to Mala Singh tearing apart the great and the good of Delhi, she seemed to have not a care in the world -- much less in the Congress party. She was not laughing uproariously or trying to match Mala's gags, she just seemed untypically comfortable. (She had brought along a delicious crab salad to be served at dinner.)

Watching her, I thought to myself, at last she is among people with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.

Privately, she is both funny and irreverent. Privately. When you meet her for twenty or thirty minutes, she is all attention. Invariably, she is waiting for you and during the interactions I had there were absolutely no interruptions with phone calls, or PAs walking in, as is usual with lesser netas. The coffee she serves at 10 Janpath is decent, but unlikely to win a Michelin award. However, the chocolates that go with it would, in my gastronomic appraisal, get three Michelin stars.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India: Lucknow Boy: A Memoir by Vinod Mehta. Viking. Rs 499.


Image: Sonia Gandhi with her son Rahul

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