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|September 16, 1999||
Sonia takes saffron bull by the horns
Sharat Pradhan in Allahabad
Congress president Sonia Gandhi today took the Bharatiya Janata Party head-on when she questioned the patriotism of her primary adversary.
Reacting to the BJP's continuing tirade about her foreign origin, Gandhi said: "The question is not of desi [indigenous] or videshi [foreign], but of being deshbhakta [patriotic]. What about the patriotism of those who were sleeping when Pakistani infiltrators occupied our territory in Kargil? What about the sugar import deal they struck with Pakistan and doled out crores of rupees even at the cost of harming the interests of the Indian sugarcane farmer and our own sugar industry?"
Gandhi was addressing a massive election rally in Allahabad, erstwhile home of the Nehrus and a Congress bastion until 10 years ago.
On Kargil, which the BJP has made its main electoral plank and on which Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had praised his own government profusely just yesterday at the same site, the Congress president demanded: "Who was responsible for allowing our soldiers to be butchered?"
She wanted to know "why the BJP government was busy advocating safe passage for the intruders" at the height of the conflict in Kargil. She said, "By their acts it was amply visible that the BJP government was only trying to issue a certificate of innocence to Pakistan."
Gandhi, who displayed much greater confidence in the content of her speech as well as her Hindi oratory, replied to all the attacks and insinuations by Vajpayee at an equally impressive BJP rally in the city last evening.
In her 35-minute, forceful speech, she neither fumbled nor gave the impression of simply reading out a prepared text. "She really knew the right stresses and strains," said an amazed Allahabad University student, Rajesh Kumar Yadav.
Mohammad Naseer, a farmer, was also impressed. About her accent, he remarked: "So what? There are many locals who cannot speak straight Hindi."
Terming the Congress party's "truly secular credentials" as its biggest strength, Gandhi said the currently moderate approach of the BJP is only a "fašade".
"Some people are trying to put up a fašade of communal harmony, but they get exposed when one of their leaders says they have put to rest all contentious issues like the Ram temple, Article 370 and common civil code; then someone closely associated with their outfit asserts that there is no question of giving up any of those issues," she said.
She drew loud applause when she declared: "Jo Bhagwan Ram ke nahi hue, woh aapke kabhi nahin ho sakte (those who could not be honest to Lord Ram can never be true to you)."
Responding to oft-repeated references by other speakers to her as the bahu (daughter-in-law) of Allahabad, she recalled her emotional bonds with the city. "I have great memories of Indiraji narrating details of the struggle she and her family had to undergo during the days of the freedom movement here," she said.
She reminded her audience, which was spilling across the streets and even crowded building terraces and treetops all around, "You are aware of the contribution of my family members in the freedom movement, in nation-building and development, as also how they laid down their lives for the nation. Now I have to complete their unfinished task; and the biggest challenge that I see before me is of poverty and unemployment."
Claiming that the Congress alone could provide a "strong and stable government", Gandhi made another dig at Vajpayee: "When they cannot run a coalition of 18 parties, how do they propose to carry on with their current coalition of 24 parties?"
Though a number of youths who had joined the rally were keen to have a glimpse of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, whose absence disappointed many, they were placated by the sight of Rahul Gandhi who went round the dais waving to the crowds.
As the show concluded, in typical Nehru-Gandhi style, Rahul walked towards the stands to shake hands with the people, causing a mad scramble in the crowd for a closer look. The wooden barricades almost gave way, before the security personnel got into the act to keep the straining fans at a distance.
Two university students who admitted to having come all the way to see Priyanka Gandhi said it was not her glamour that had drawn them. "I perceive her as the real heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family," said Arun Gupta, a post-graduate student. That seemed to sum up the common sentiment in Allahabad.
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