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January 11, 1998


Sonia checks her emotions, but her interpreter goes full throttle

N Sathiya Moorthy in Sriperumbudur

She came, she saw, but there were not many for her to conquer.

The crowd that gathered today to hear Sonia Gandhi address her first political meeting was not impressive by any standards. Estimates put it in the region of 12,000, but whatever was lacking in numbers was made up by the instant rapport and reaction 'Amma' built up once she opened her mouth.

The choice of the venue -- a local government higher secondary school -- could have violated the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct which bars political parties from using the government or its resources for poll campaigning. But given the security consideration attending on Sonia Gandhi's maiden political venture, it could not have been helped.

''Once the decision had been made that she would address a public meeting at Sriperumbudur, there was no other choice,'' says a Congress official.

The only other public ground of such expanse, if that is any, houses the Rajiv Gandhi memorial, the site where the former prime minister was assassinated.

If Sonia herself reserved her emotions -- and echoed only familial sentiments, which any American political analyst would have interpreted positively, if not as a 'winner' -- her interpreter Kumari Anandan left nothing to chance or imagination.

A Tamil litterateur in his own right, the former state Congress president drew instantaneous reaction for Sonia whenever she closed her mouth, and he opened his. The crowds cheered with her all the way, and felt for her loss, 'even after the long passage of time', as she herself put it.

Sonia was dressed in a dark green cotton sari with a pale one-line border, and matching plain blouse, while Priyanka was attired in a maroon cotton sari with a broad yellow border and blouse.

The mother reflected the sombre mood that has come to be associated with her for long even while greeting the crowd. But Priyanka was spontaneously emotive. She kept waving to them.

''I became part of India 30 years back, when I became Indira Gandhi's eldest son's bride,'' Sonia Gandhi said.

She saw India through 'her heart'. And her proximity to both Indira and Rajiv helped her understand India, its people and their problems, she said.

And in true Indira Gandhi-esque style, Sonia started off her speech with the traditional Sahotharikale, Sahothararkale (brothers and sisters) in Tamil. Likewise, she ended the speech in the local lingo, saying 'Nantri, vanakkam' (thanks and greetings).

It was then left to Priyanka to be cajoled into addressing the crowd that went into raptures when she asked them to vote for the Congress: ''Neenga ellarum Congress-sukku vote podanum.''

Incidentally, her fluency in Tamil seemed to be better than that of Indira Gandhi. So was her infectious trademark Rajiv Gandhi smile, his early political avatar, which had made him a hit with the masses.

''Sonia will be an instant hit,'' says Congress leader and former party MP Tindivanam K Ramamurthy. So feels Latha Priyakumar, in campaigning for whose mother Maragatham Chandrasekhar, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991.

Latha lost the Sriperumbudur Lok Sabha seat in 1996, after being the local MLA for a term earlier. Now she plans to contest the same seat, and hopes to win it, ''now that Sonia Gandhi has rejuvenated the Congress''.

For all the euphoria it has created for the Congress -- at least in party circles -- the message is yet to reach out to the masses, as their presence was poor at the venue of the rally.

The organisers had done a poor job. For an international media event, which is also the only hope for reviving a failing political party, the turnout was poor, by any count. It was poorer than the meeting that Rajiv was to have addressed on a dark and fateful night over six years ago.

Standing tall from across the compact dais, decorated with flowers in the Congress's saffron-white-and-green, was a cutout of Sonia. Flanking hers were cutouts of Indira, Rajiv, Maulana Azad, Ambedkar, and Kamaraj, the 'father-figure' of all Congressmen and movements in the state. By comparison, the cutout of the 'Father of the Nation' was conspicuous by its comparative small size.

But when Congressmen are here, can groupism be far away? For a party suffering a minority existence in the state, two groups headed by state Congress chief K V Thangabalu and his arch-rival, former Union minister P Prabhu launched a slanging match for everyone to hear.

So embarrassed, yet so unwitted, was 'Polur' Vardhan, whose assembly election campaign was the last one Rajiv addressed before being assassinated, that he went on to the public address system to castigate partymen. In doing so, however, he mentioned the Verma Commission referring to the differences and disturbances in the Congress contributing to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in no mean measure.

And when Congressmen were not fighting, they were busy collecting caps. 'Gandhi caps', to be precise. In true 'Congress style' again, the state party unit had thought of the scorching sun that kept peeping out of a cloudy sky on a 'wintery day'. If that's winter by any standard.

There was a near-scramble for the 'Gandhi caps', which were being freely distributed for the cadres. And the international media thought them to be both funny and handy, only that a local counterpart of theirs in traditional 'khadi' found partymen pestering him for more caps.

If 45-year-old Saroja, who was in the crowd, had come from the adjoining South Madras parliamentary constituency with a few of her friends, as desired by Jaya Arunachalam, a political veteran seeking the party ticket, 60-year-old Rajamma, who has been a Congress worker and voter all along, has been shepherded to the venue from distant Salem in a truck.

''We have come in 11 trucks,'' she says, but quickly refuting the figure herself, not knowing whether to add to or subtract from the number when one points out the low turnout.

Incidentally, Salem was the constituency from where Thangabalu lost the 1996 election, and even Rajamma and her associates do not hide the fact that they were brought to the venue on Thangabalu's behalf. ''We will go back in the evening after doing a round of Madras, which is only a 90-minute drive,'' she adds.

It's a different case with Parthasarathy, a small savings agent in Sriperumbudur. A traditional Congressman who is now a local functionary of the Tamil Maanila Congress, he came to have a glimpse of the lady. And at the end of it all, he has not decided to vote the Congress, ''as all such decisions will have to be taken by the TMC leaders''. But he is quick to point out that Sriperumbudur has been a ''traditional Congress constituency, and whoever has won from here, has done so only on the strength of the Congress votes''.

As one speeds away from Sriperumbudur, a mini-truck with a Sonia cut-out is still perched on a hedge, the latter yet to be erected by the roadside. And one is naturally reminded of the scene in Madras earlier in the morning, where one had seen a man sleeping on a bed of wall-posters, welcoming Sonia. ''They gave it to me for pasting them on the city walls only late at night. Sonia had already arrived in the city by then.'' Some logic.

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