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|September 9, 1999||
Priyanka charms Amethi, prepares ground for Sonia
Sharat Pradhan in Amethi
Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra today took Amethi by storm when she flew in as a prelude to her mother Sonia Gandhi filing her nomination tomorrow.
In her first independent visit to the constituency that returned her father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, to the Lok Sabha thrice in the Eighties, Vadra clearly showed characteristics of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, to whom she bears a strong resemblance.
From the time she landed at the Fursatganj airstrip in the Indira Gandhi Flying Academy set up by her father, Vadra was the star attraction for the people who remembered her as a little girl accompanying her father on umpteen visits to the place.
In a style characteristic of her grandmother, she was quick to rebut the charge of being the daughter of a videshi! No sooner did a journalist draw her attention to this accusation being levelled openly by her uncle, Arun Nehru, she shot back: "Do I look like a videshi daughter?
Vadra was quite at ease dealing with the hysterical party workers who did not heed even senior Congressmen like Satish Sharma and Pramod Tewari. "Now when I am going to speak to you, won't you keep quiet and sit down?" she said to the enthusiastic crowds at a meeting of party workers. "If you do not observe silence and sit down in your places, I will not speak," she said, smiling yet firm. And promptly there was pin-drop silence.
Vadra drew intermittent applause as she took off on an emotional note, recalling how she used to visit Amethi with her father. "When I was coming here this morning, I was remembering my childhood days when I would visit this place with my father. I remember how our doors were thrown open to anyone and everyone from Amethi, and how he would see to it that your problems were sorted out."
She lamented that things had not remained the same after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. "I am aware how you all have been neglected," she said. "That is why now my mataji [mother] is coming here to file her nomination, so that there is someone to look after you again," she said to loud cheers and applause.
When Vadra individually met the office-bearers of the local Congress unit, she told them: "Now it is my responsibility and your responsibility to ensure that Soniaji wins this seat with a thumping majority." There was confidence in her words and it was amply evident that she was demanding their support by right, when she added, "Remember, you were the people who extended all your support to my father; without your support even he would not have been able to win."
Significantly, this was Vadra's first major political speech at such length anywhere. Even in Bellary, where she campaigned for her mother, she said barely a few words.
But addressing a meeting of party workers on her own without her mother beside her was something she had never done. Yet, the confidence and maturity with which she carried out her task amazed even senior Congress politicians, who were literally left in the background.
All along the 10km drive from the airport to the venue of the party meeting, she halted the bullet-proof Ambassador in which she was travelling with Satish Sharma to accept garlands or greetings from the surging crowds.
Sharma, who had repeatedly told the people of Amethi that he was only holding the seat as a custodian of the family, proudly told the audience: "I am handing the khadoons [sandals] of Rajiv Gandhi back to his family: I've kept my word."
Vadra told the crowds: "Don't worry, I'm coming back here to camp from the 17th; you have to join me in the campaigning." And in an obvious bid to convey to them that the family had decided to do away with middlemen, she quipped: "Mataji has sent me to have a word with you. Now you must come directly to me if you have any problems."
Unlike in the past, Vadra was much more open and communicative. She did not hesitate to break the security cordon to go close to the crowds, have a word with people, listen to their woes, and once in while pat the cheek of an infant in some mother's lap.
She also did not fight shy of the media and was ever willing to answer queries. About her own plans to contest, she said: "Well, I have no plans to contest; I have come to work and campaign for my mother.
Her motorcade was stopped at regular intervals along the road; many showered rose petals from the rooftops. At Jais, a crowd of Muslims surged onto the road. Men, women and schoolchildren lined up all along to wave out to her, and she responded with equal enthusiasm.
As a local advocate put it succinctly: "She came, she smiled, she conquered."
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