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February 22, 1998


Campaign Trail/Vaihayasi P Daniel

'Yes, I will vote for the Congress this time'

"Barabar bolee hai," said the bhelpuriwallah, dishing out heaps of kurmura to evening strollers at the corner of Shivaji Park.

"Barabar bolee hai," declared a youth sitting on the ledge around the park discussing the rally with his friends.

"Barabar bolee hai," said the Congress worker exchanging notes with fellow activists inside the dusty grounds.

The consensus of those who came from miles around to hear Sonia Gandhi speak for the first time in Bombay, a few yards from the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji in Dadar, was: She has put it correctly... She has spoken the truth... She's right!

Sonia Gandhi took the audience by storm with her crisp, simple speech and earnest presence on a dias of Congress oldtimers, on Sunday evening. Never mind that from time to time she stumbled on a long Hindi word or pronounced Mumbai as Mooom-bye.

"She spoke in Hindi. So many people here in Bombay cannot speak to us in Hindi or Marathi," conceded a police constable.

Indeed she won herself a number of admirers with her soft luminous face and brave, determined demeanour. Shivaji Park, filled to capacity, listened in near total silence as she spoke. And the audience appeared impressed. More than anything else, the crowd murmured their approval about the sincerity of her message. "In your city on August 20, 1944, Rajiv Gandhi was born. He was my husband and my religion. He gave me a lot of love and kindness. And my life was full. Now he is not with me."... And when she declared movingly -- "I am willing to lay down my life for this country" -- the applause was deafening.

"She is like a bahu or a daughter-in-law," declared an elderly Maharashtrian couple after the speech. "She may be from some other country. But she is just like the bahus that come to our families from different castes. Once they marry into our families they become one of us. Yes, I will vote for the Congress."

Says a hawker, "I usually sell chikkis (peanut candy) at Chowpatty beach. I came here to sell chikki today so I could hear Soniaji speak. And she has spoken very well. I liked the way she talked. When I go back to my village in Uttar Pradesh to vote I will put a stamp for the Congress hand."

His fellow hawker, a Maharashtrian from Sangli, felt the same.

It did not matter that Sonia was not Indian or a Hindu. Or that she was representing the Congress, a party that had lost both the assembly and parliamentary elections in the state.

They did not care that she was not Indian. "She's not born in India. So what? Sita was born in Nepal."

"Not Hindu? But she was married to a Hindu. That automatically makes her Hindu. And her children. What of them? They are Hindu and Indian and that automatically makes her Indian."

"The Shiv Sena always talks like that. If one is not Maharashtrian one cannot be from Bombay. Is that correct? What does all this matter? She is in India. "

And more important, the people that this correspondent spoke to, felt that the Shiv Sena's track record in Maharashtra had not been impressive.

"What have they done????" was the question that popped right back.


"I am voting for a change. How have the Shiv Sena helped us?" declares Prakash Mithari, a worker whose factory had a lock out. "They have not done anything for the people. They have not done anything for the worker class."

"I want a stable government," says Adhik Kamate, a technician. "I am Hindu, so why should I be against the Shiv Sena? But I think our Sharad Pawar would make a good prime minister. I voted for the Shiv Sena the last time even though my whole family voted for the Congress. But I consider that my Rs 100 -- the amount that the government spends on each voter -- went in vain last time. This time I am making sure that my Rs 100 does not go to waste and I am voting for Congress. I have been at this park since 2 pm to hear her speak. And now I am convinced."

"I work for the Republican Party of India," says another, waving his blue flag. "And our party has an alliance with the Congress. But that all apart...Bahut barabar bolee hai."

Madam's Mystique

Campaign Trail

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