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January 11, 1998


Priyanka steals the show!

A K Diwanji and Shobha Warrier in Sriperumbudur

She came, she saw, she fizzled out... That may well sum up Sonia Gandhi's speech at Sriperumbudur, kicking off the Congress campaign countrywide. The constant refrain in her speech to an audience of at the most 15,000 people, was Rajiv Gandhi, her late husband, who, she said, had sacrificed his life for the country and to uphold certain values.

If Sonia Gandhi's speech is any indication, the Congress campaign will be based on emotion: Rajiv and the Nehru-Gandhi family. She began the campaign by first paying tribute at the samadhi of her husband, built on the spot where Rajiv fell victim to a human bomb on May 21, 1991.

The press corps was out in strength, with photographers and cameramen having taken up vantage positions early in the morning. No one knew the timing of her arrival; some said 0900 hours, some 1000 hours, finally Sonia came in at 1145 hours IST, by which time most of the media had gained a deep tan. Walking briskly, flanked by her daughter Priyanka, already hailed as the Future Queen of the Congress, and Tamil Nadu Congress chief K V Thangabalu, Sonia entered the ground and walked briskly up to the memorial, where a portrait of Rajiv and a burning lamp are placed inside a glass canopy.

Her style was reminiscent of her mother-in-law: deep dull green sari draped over her head, walking purposefully towards the memorial; no smiles, no waving. Mother and daughter paid homage at the samadhi as the photographers clicked away. Then the Gandhis walked away, and prepared to head for the rally, where Sonia was to deliver only the second public speech in her life.

The not-at-all impressive crowds at the ground must be disappointing for the Congress leadership, and perhaps for the Gandhis. Only a few days ago, former chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram's public meeting attracted about 35,000 people. The crowds had clearly been brought in by zealous Congress workers from neighbouring districts. But they seemed truly happy at the prospect of having Sonia and not Sitaram Kesri on their banners and posters! There were also the faithful, the true Congress supporters, who hailed and cheered Sonia and Priyanka as one might the Next Coming.

Cries of "Sonia Gandhi zindabad" and "Thaye, kuppathungo (save us mother)" rent the air, as many Congress workers charged themselves up to a frenzy. A live band provided a litany of popular tunes, with lyrics appropriately invoking Sonia as mother. Huge cutouts of famous Congress leaders were placed around the ground. Understandably, the biggest cutout was of Sonia, towering 25 feet into the air; strangely, the smallest was of Mahatma Gandhi, at about 12 feet!

Sonia entered, and people stood up -- if only to get a better view. With the dais placed just a few feet above the ground for security reasons, many people at the back of the audience were unable to see clearly. By now it was past noon, and the dry south Indian heat was awesome. So hot was it that some women, many of them old, left right after Sonia took her place on the dais, and before she had even uttered a syllable.

Sonia began her speech in Tamil, and the crowds were clearly pleased at the gesture. She then spoke, rather impassively, in English which few were able to follow, about her Indian roots; her reasons for entering politics; and the sacrifices of the Gandhis, especially Rajiv, for the Congress. Sonia's style of speaking was undramatic, like a school teacher in a classroom, made in a state which had a film star as chief minister, and where drama is a part of daily political discourse. It was, however, brought to life by the translator who dramatised and altered the speech wherever he thought necessary. While speaking of her husband's death, Sonia mentioned it matter-of-factly; the translator's voice quivered with emotion as he mentioned Rajiv's martyrdom. It got the applause and cries of "zindabad;" the votes remain to be seen!

Congress leaders spoke of how only Sonia and her daughter Priyanka could save the Congress and India, and that she must take up the mantle of prime ministership. There was no other choice, no other person except thay! (mother). But Sonia did not wear a happy expression. She looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. Priyanka in contrast seemed to be enjoying the adulation, and the crowds. Far more spontaneous, she waved at the end and smiled away.

Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law greeted the crowds a happy Pongal (which falls on January 14, 15 and 16), and ended her speech with a word of thanks in Tamil! Applause. Then the coup de grace. Priyanka went up to the mike and said, "All of you, vote the Congress" in Tamil.. Even more applause. And certainly, Priyanka's Tamil accent was far superior's to Sonia's rather European Tamil and English.

Traffic on the important Madras-Bangalore highway outside the ground had been diverted, and as the Gandhis left, Congress workers went berserk and dashed towards them, only to be held back by the huge police contingent. Policemen and women were hauled from all over the state, including a batallion of the Rapid Action Force, for the rally. The police lined the highway right up to the Raj Bhavan in Madras, where the Gandhis were staying before they caught a flight back to Delhi in the evening. Sriperumbudur, a sleepy town until Rajiv Gandhi died there, is 150 km away from Madras.

Perhaps the happiest people around were those who owned tea and cold drink stalls in the town. After the rally was over, the crowds rushed across to quench their parched throats. The trees were festooned with banners and buntings of Sonia and Rajiv; no other Congress leader existed. Sitaram Kesri clearly belonged to another era, perhaps another planet.

Sonia pumps sentiments into her 'vote Congress' plea

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