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February 28, 1998


Campaign Trail/Sunil Sethi

Gori bahu goes to Gujarat

The crowd began to collect before noon in the cricket ground of Bapu Nagar, the only large clearing in the poor, congested mill area where many of Ahmedabad's textile labourers live.

"Gori bahu avanache Dilli thi (the fair daughter-in-law is coming from Delhi)," said Kamalabehn excitedly in Gujarati. One of the hundreds of thousands of women streaming into the compound, Kamlabehn was only expressing the prevailing colour-consciousness among many Indian women, who don't mind if their daughters are dark-skinned but prefer their daughters-in-law to be fair.

Sonia Gandhi, the gori bahu from Delhi, was in fact arriving from Himachal Pradesh for a brief stopover in Gujarat and then proceeding to Kerala. When her helicopter landed at three in the afternoon right behind the dais, the cricket ground was a heaving mass of 200,000-odd people, all coated with dust.

The gori bahu strode on to the dais with son Rahul in tow, and in a series of stiff, almost robotic movements that have characterised her appearances on rostrums throughout the country, waved her hand, read a brief speech in accented Hindi with appropriate references to Gujarat and Mahatma Gandhi, and disappeared in another cloud of dust in less than half an hour. It was not what she said that seemed to matter as much as the anticipation of her arrival and the huge bandobast accompanying it. The audience comprised large numbers of mill workers, many of whom have been laid off due to mill closures, and some, like Kamalabehn, believed that the gori bahu from Delhi will soon have the mills functioning again.

"She will give our jobs back," she declared enthusiastically.

Wherever Sonia Gandhi has been since she kicked off her Congress campaign in Sriperumbudur, the scene of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination on January 11, the reaction has been similar to her meeting in Bapu Nagar in Ahmedabad. In the hundred constituencies she has toured, zigzagging across the country by the helicopter or private plane, there are enough people at her meetings who pin their future hopes on her. With her campaign, she has helped to revive the party's flagging fortunes. This is at the crux of the endlessly-debated 'Sonia factor' in the 1998 election.

In electoral terms, the Congress is badly off in Gujarat, a state that is undergoing a twin poll to Parliament as well as the state legislature. There is a vacuum in the party's upper echelons -- no single figure in the Gujarat Congress stands taller than the rest. Both in representation to Parliament and the state assembly the Congress comes a poor second to the BJP.

The Ahmedabad seat itself has been held by the BJP's Harin Pathak since 1989, and party president L K Advani in neighbouring Gandhinagar is undefeatable. The Congress's troubles in Gujarat have been further compounded by strongman Shankarsinh Vaghela, whose Rashtriya Janata Party is in power. But a proposed pre-poll alliance between the Congress and RJP that could have resisted the return of the BJP fell through, some say because, emboldened by Sonia's entry into politics, the Congress demanded more seats than the RJP was willing to concede.

Like Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress is of little consequence electorally, Gujarat will be another litmus test of the difference the 'Sonia factor' can make. Although she spent two days campaigning in Gujarat, particularly Saurashtra where the party's treasurer Ahmed Patel comes from and even addressed a meeting in Baroda within hours of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, opinion remains sharply divided over the net gains that Sonia's efforts may yield.

Analysts and pollsters unanimously agree that Sonia's campaign has halted the BJP's inexorable advance to gain a parliamentary majority and that it has succeeded in giving the Congress a much-needed shot in the arm. But the boost seems most likely in states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where the Congress stood to gain either from shrewd pre-poll alliances or a higher index of unity among local leaders. Between perception and reality, however, the actual effect of the 'Sonia factor' will only be gauged once the results are out.

Such ambiguities should not detract us from the assiduousness of her campaign -- in a month-and-a-half she has covered about a 100 constituencies -- nor the strategic planning of her travels or the skillful crafting of it all. She has performed a wide range of roles on stage, from grieving widow and dutiful daughter-in-law to singular torchbearer of the dynastic flame.

Where necessary she has been the Congress's best apologist, admitting in Punjab that Operation Bluestar and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were a mistake, and following it up with decisive action by denying P V Narasimha Rao a ticket for the Babri Masjid demolition. And where necessary she has led the Congress charge against the BJP, calling Atal Bihari Vajpayee a 'liar'; at the rally in New Delhi on February 13, and darkly hinting in Gujarat that the RSS was in sympathy with the assassins of Gandhi.

For the seven years that she remained in political purdah it used to be said of Sonia Gandhi that her power remained so long as she did not define it. The defining moment of the campaign has passed and the next is on hand. Upon her move after the election result hangs the Congress's future and also the future of the new government in Delhi.

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Campaign Trail

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