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February 22, 1998


Campaign Trail/Prem Panicker

'When the fire of communal violence was burning up your homes, the people who set it ablaze were sitting peacefully inside their homes'

India produces the largest number of films of any country in the world.

And it is when I am sitting in Shivaji Park, watching the Sonia Gandhi roadshow, that I suddenly realise why that should be so.

The plain and simple truth is in India, reality -- especially political reality -- sucks. Which is why we need a more than average dose of fantasy in our lives.

Reality, for me today, was Sitaram Kesri. President of a party with a 100-plus year track record behind it. And sycophant extraordinaire.

"I am not a leader," says Kesri, who in his time has touched the feet of first Indira, then Rajiv, then P V Narasimha Rao. "Where have I ever claimed I am a leader? I am the president of a party. The real leader is Sonia Gandhi, the person who is being acclaimed by lakhs across the country!"

Kesri obviously is not accustomed to crowds in the high thousands. Thus, in his brief speech of just under five minutes, he stuttered, he stumbled, he fumbled, he made such a cake of himself that the high point came when an exasperated voice in the crowd yelled Abhe baith! drawing approving laughter not just from crowds in the region, but even from the adjoining press enclosure.

Never before has the Congress party been led, at the hustings, by such an obviously uncharismatic leader.

And that explains the presence of the fantasy figure. Sonia Gandhi, to give her a name.

A crowd estimated at anywhere around 100,000 -- give, not take, 50,000 -- packed the venue a good two hours before the scheduled start of play. A senior police official who has seen it all before, on bandobust duty at the Vanita Samaj entrance, tells me that it is comparable in size to anything Bal Thackeray draws at his best.

As I listen to the cop, one part of me is wondering what Thackeray makes of it all -- for this, mind you, is the pol who, a couple of weeks earlier, taunted the Congress and claimed that the party could never hold a rally in a maidan because it was never confident of filling open spaces.

And here is an open space, one the Shiv Sena has made its own, packed to overflowing.

Where did the crowd come from, and how? Earlier in the day, I wander through Vashi, New Bombay. And stop at the New Bombay office of the Congress party. When I get there, five buses and several tempos are drawn up, all flying the Congress flag and boasting banners reading 'Chalo Shivaji Park.' Is this part of an effort to fill the venue, I ask. "We have hired these vehicles, and sold tickets to everyone who wants to go to Shivaji Park for the rally," an official there tells me.

At the end of the rally, I wander through the crowd and find hundreds streaming down the road towards the Siddhivinayak Temple. And here and there, I overhear talk of how crowded the buses are going to be.

Obviously, a sizeable chunk of the crowd has come there on its own, and not part of any organised effort by a political organisation (though it needs mentioning here that the Republican Party of India has made a massive effort, and obvious, effort to mobilise the faithful).

So a chunk of the crowd has come on its own, disrupting its Sunday routine, facing the prospect of packed buses and traffic jams and a hellish trip back home.

For what?

Sonia Gandhi, is what.

As she ascends the dais, brisk and smiling, I pretend for a minute that I am from Mars or someplace equally removed from the emotional tangle that is Indian politics. And see her from that perspective.

And with my Martian eyes, what I see is a housewife. Fair bordering, thanks to the contrast provided by her grey sari and maroon blouse, on pallor. Her resume takes all of a minute to tell, and is comprised mostly of negatives. She is, thus, not a Congress office bearer. She is not a candidate for a seat in the Lok Sabha, let alone the prime ministership of the country. She has no experience of administering anything more complex than her home, and perhaps the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. And her oratorical style, flat, monotonous and studied, is more Brutus than Mark Antony.

Sonia Gandhi aayi hai/Nai roshni layi hai! is the slogan taken up by Maharashtra Congress chief Ranjit Deshmukh, from the dais, as she ascends it.

So what, I ask myself, is this roshni in actual fact?

You cannot explain it in concrete terms. You cannot rationalise it. But it is there -- in the massive crowd throning the venue, in the total silence in which they hear her out, in the spontaneous applause that wells up as she, with unerring instinct, touches on one pressure point after another in her 20 minute oration.

Could it be that what she is selling -- and what the people are buying wholesale -- is simply explained as something new, something different?

And that newness, that difference, is enough to enthuse a crowd for which today's politicians are as stale as last evening's coffee.

Climbing the dais, behind Sonia Gandhi, is that bigul of Amethi -- namely, beta Rahul. As he climbs, he waves. There is in his body language diffidence, perhaps even downright embarrassment.

It is like when you, all city-slicked, visit your mom's ancestral home in a remote village. Kids gawp at you, young boys pretend a blase indifference, young girls giggle, elders fawn. And you smirk, a rictus of sheer embarrassment.

Rahul Gandhi's wave is like that.

His sister -- made famous by Gandhi balladeer Piyush in the immortal catchphrase Amethi ki danka/Bitiya Priyanka -- is, by all accounts, more to the political manner born than her sibling. And it is Bitiya Priyanka's cut-out image, and hers alone, that at the venue enjoys the same prominence as that of her mother, towering in size beyond even those of her illustrious grandmother Indira Gandhi.

And then, after Kesri's bumbles and Bombay Congress boss Murli Deora's fawning intro -- Sonia Gandhi speaks.

Reminds you of a Chinese acupuncturist, the lady does. Each needle is perfectly placed, with just the right amount of pressure.

Since we are in Maharashtra, she has to touch on a local hero. So, after her opening reference to how it was from this city that Gandhi made the Quit India call, how it was this city where her own husband was born, she says, "This state has also given India another great hero -- Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj!"


She then touches on the essential difference between the two contenders -- and if there is a third contender, namely the United Front, in the fray, then you wouldn't know it judging by her oration.

"The Congress has given you leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Lokmanya Tilak, Maulana Azad, Indira Gandhi.... and the BJP has given you Naturam Godse."

Wild applause.

"The Congress gave you five stable governments, each of which lasted the full tenure. The BJP gave you a government that lasted 13 days."

You guessed it -- cheers.

The Congress has upheld the ideal of secularism, of a mingling of all religions, of every stream of thought. The BJP, in the name of religion, breaks down religious structures.

And then, she really goes and does it. Pointing in the general direction of Shiv Sena Bhavan -- that party's GHQ -- I find myself wondering which smart guy clued her in -- she says, "When the fire of communal violence was burning up your homes, the people who set it ablaze were sitting peacefully inside their homes."

As an indictment of the Sena supremo, it is as direct as it can get. And the crowd, literally sitting in the shadow of Thackeray's compound wall, roars approval -- that roar magnified by a sound system of 50,000 watt power, bolstered by six banks of speakers, 60 in all, courtesy Chaitra Radio.

She has the audience in the palm of her hand -- and on cue, she closes her fist over it. A reference is made to the service the Nehru-Gandhi clan has done for the country. And then she says: "I am the wife of Rajiv Gandhi. His ideals are what I have imbibed, they will be my ideals as long as I am alive!"

Huge cheers.

"And if need be," she says as the applause reduces to a diminuendo, "I will lay down my life for this country!"

This time, there is no stopping the crowd -- the applause rises in waves and despite Sonia's gesturing for quiet, the zindabads cascade at her.

The crowd by now is hers, and she nails it down with three Jai Hinds that produce thunderous response.

A wave, a namaste, and she is gone, brisk as ever, Rahul in tow. Down the steps of the dais, into her car and, in the sheltering cocoon of her cavalcade comprising in equal parts politicos and policemen, she is off to the airport. En route to Delhi.

Two cars behind her own, trails party president Sitaram Kesri.

Earlier in the day, many have spoken. Govindrao Adik. Ramdas Athavle. The acerbic, rabble-rousing Chhagan Bhujbal, of whom more later. Sohail Lokandwala the Samajwadi Party candidate. Sharad Pawar. Murli Deora, the South Bombay candidate. And, of course, Sitaram Kesri.

None, not even "Maratha strongman" Sharad Pawar, received an iota of the reception, the applause, Sonia was showered with.

As I am swept along by the mass, towards the exit, there is time enough to think of what Sonia Gandhi has meant to General Election circa 1998.

When the Gujral government fell, the Congress was perhaps at the lowest point, popularity-wise, it has ever been in its history (and I am not forgetting 1977 here).

At that time, Sitaram Kesri was a joke. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee a shoo-in for the prime ministership.

Today, the BJP is on the defensive. Advani cancels a rally in Nagpur because, a day earlier, Sonia Gandhi's own rally at the venue drew them in their hundreds of thousands.

Vajpayee, that orator par excellence, is reduced to querulous impotence as he tries to take the battle to the Sonia camp.

He has consistently failed. Because, in common with the Bofors weaponry that is inextricably linked to her late husband's name, she has perfected what in military slang is termed shoot-and-scoot strategy.

She storms into a city, a venue. She shoots from the hip, her salvoes tailored to local prejudice. And she goes, leaving the opposition in her wake, wondering how to counter her.

She was supposed to address a press conference -- a promise made when Vajpayee challenged her to a public debate, or at least to answer queries from the press.

That press conference is yet to materialise, and given that we are into the last phase of campaigning, it is obvious that it never will.

The party faithful don't give a damn. Such analysis, such quibbling, is left to the media -- meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi rolls on, unchecked, unchallenged.

Seasoned politicians like Pawar -- not to mention practised sycophants like Kesri -- go Soniaji this, and Soniaji that, abasing themselves before this political novice.

And if they do, they are only paying their dues. For Sonia Gandhi has given the Congress something the party could never have dreamt of achieving without her -- the opportunity to go on the offensive.

Check out the body language of the Congress leaders, as they address an unprecedented crowd right in the heart of the Shiv Sena's central fortress. It exudes confidence, combativeness. There is no apology for pulling down first the Deve Gowda, then the Gujral governments -- rather, an aggressive statement that if it had not been for the Congress, mid-term polls would have been inevitable after 13 days, not 18 months.

What there is, is a flat out assault on the BJP, on the Shiv Sena. And the nuclear warhead powering the attack is, yeah, right, Sonia Gandhi.

Widow. Housewife. Mother.

And, for a few hundred thousand here, as for several millions elsewhere across the country, that most precious commodity in a bleak political scenario -- hope.

What that hope is, they can't articulate.

But Sonia Gandhi is a hope, that they know. And with the death grasp of a drowing man, they collectively clutch at it.

Maybe someday, Bollywood will make a movie out of this. And film critics will, in their reviews, dismiss the plotline as totally unrealistic.

'This time I am voting for the Congress'

Madam's Mystique

Campaign Trail

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