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Home > Business > Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

The Night The Diaspora Met Sonia

Archana Masih | January 13, 2003 19:29 IST

Sonia Gandhi walked past the bonfires in the chilly winter evening and breezed into the canopied dinner area at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi stadium.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi with FICCI president A C MuthiahThe cocktails and dinner, organized on the second night of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event, was a lavish affair. Rich gold and maroon brocade fabrics draped tables and covered chairs. Orchids sat at the center of tables and tall pole-like heaters were installed between tables to keep guests warm. Long buffet tables ran along three sides, with a spread of cuisine from various Indian states.

The guests had turned out in good numbers. Dinner was to be followed by Bollywood Night, and few wanted to miss the dance-song-play acts by Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwaraya Rai, Urmila Matondkar and Akshay Kumar.

But that was only at 9 pm. The cocktail and dinner event that began at 6.45 was slotted by the organizers -- namely the  external affairs ministry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry -- to the Leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi.

In a three-day event marked by the absence of the Congress party, barring an informal interactive session with Sonia and presentations by Congress-ruled states like Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in a session stipulated for Indian states, Sonia was also afflicted by the should-I-should-I-not syndrome. A couple of days earlier, Delhi newspapers had reported she had cancelled her scheduled interactive session with the NRIs/PIO.

She then changed her mind. At least on one count. That she would, as the invite put it -- 'grace the occasion,' and perhaps alter that 'interactive' bit a wee bit.

"The Leader of the Opposition is here. You can come and meet her," announced FICCI Secretary General Amit Mitra. Accompanied by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and trusted lieutenant K Natwar Singh, Sonia stood at one end, shielded by the Special Protection Group.

The guests had already been frisked and shorn of their cellular phones at the entrance to the venue. Whatever subsequent security measures remained, were taken over by the SPG. A bouquet of roses was snatched from an enthusiastic guest's hands as she rushed towards her, and was passed through the surveillance test. Her husband, with his finger fixed on his Nikon, tried to intervene, but then gave up.

"It is right they took it away," said an NRI from Hong Kong. "After all, this is how Rajiv Gandhi died. It was a garland of flowers that took him to his gruesome end."

Declaring he had a picture with Rajiv when the then prime minister had visited his village, he was among the first in queue to get another picture shot with  his wife. "Please queue up, she says she will meet all of us," he told others who had bunched around in front of her.

The sphinx of Indian politics seemed to have thawed that January night. Dressed in an aquamarine sari and beige shawl, she greeted the guests, took their visiting cards, obliged them with photographs and exchanged pleasantries.

"She is very accessible. She really is a people's person." Natwar Singh made an attempt to explain what he thought was an accurate image of his leader. But the people present gave scant attention to judging her past performance or gauging her political future.

There was only one thing that was important at that precise moment. Photographs. More importantly, full length pictures with Sonia Gandhi.

Cameras were thrust into the hands of press photographers at the vantage point just in front of her. Done with their shots by now, some of them obliged. Some in the queue asked those after them to click theirs. "Aw Gawd! This picture hasn't come out well at all," cried one as he peered into his digital camera, "I'm going to stand in queue again."

The two, sometimes three parallel queues inched slowly. Some were already grumbling it wasn't moving at all and were frustrated by those who were jumping the queue. It was a practice that would later make a security personnel at the Bollywood Night remark: "Hindustan mein wapas aak ke aap log Hindustan walon ke harkat karney lagey [Now that you are in India you are back to behaving the way Indians do]."

Tirlochan Singh Bilga, a businessman from UK, was in splits after his brief encounter.  Strong about the view that she has to learn a lot more to be a deft politician, he still told her he looked forward to seeing her as the next prime minister of India.

"She gave a reluctant smile as if to say -- 'you are saying this to me when I have Laxmi Mull Singhvi, an MP from the rival party standing right next to me.' "

Singhvi, former high commissioner to UK, was a constant figure through the three-day program. It was based on the recommendations of the High Level Committee for the Indian Diaspora he headed that the Indian government organized the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

Sonia, on her part, stood through the half hour, refusing to eat or drink anything, as she greeted all those who came to see her. Some were charmed, others, unmoved, preferring the lavish Indian food to an Italian woman still grappling with an identity crisis.

"She is very charming," said Rekha Gupta from Botswana, "and seems to be making a good effort to woo people for her politics." But the man, standing a few meters away, was consumed by disgust. "Man, what is this about? It's as if she were a deity and we guys are paying obeisance to her," he said in bemusement.

Many years ago, it was her mother-in-law who was deified as a goddess. 'Indira is India,' Congress president Dev Kanta Borooah said of a woman who was both brave and reckless, and a true people's leader. Sonia knows that is an almost impossible act to follow. But that January night, in the stadium named after Indira, Sonia Gandhi broke away from the norm she had established for herself, and made an attempt to meet people.


Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

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