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January 16, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The dynasty is knocking on the doors

Whatever one may have believed about the apolitical intentions of the Gandhi-Nehru family vis--vis the Congress, they must surely be undergoing some reconsideration over the last five days, specifically after watching the Italian-born daughter-in-law of the family firm going about the business of electioneering like she is to the manner born.

Conventional wisdom had it that the skies would not fall when Sonia Gandhi stepped out into the heat and dust of campaign politics. Proponents of this line of thought -- and they were mainly those preferring the saffron colour in their wardrobe -- argue that the people of India know a white skin when they see it, and barring the south, and even there only the women voters, the Gandhi juggernaut currently picking up momentum below the Vindhyas would lose steam once it crossed the ranges and entered the Hindi heartland.

Possibly, this was mere bravado on the part of those who, within a week of predicting a saffron sweep in the forthcoming election, find themselves on the threshold of a potential retraction. But what this widespread belief in Sonia Gandhi's lack of appeal suffered from was that it had not been tested on the rocks of cold, hard reality. The last five days have provided ample opportunity for this, and I am not sure that the anti-Sonia effect advocates referred to earlier still hold firm in their belief.

I think eating words is a far more honourable exit than eating crow. There have been any number of arguments on the desirability of a foreign-born becoming prime minister of the country. And to be fair to Sonia Gandhi, she has not once hinted at the prospect of assuming the mantle, assuming first that her party would be swept to power. And to be fair to her detractors as well, nor has she squashed the prospect with an unequivocal statement to the contrary.

The fact, as it has been pointed out ad nauseam if not ad infinitum these last few days, is that the Indian Constitution does not debar naturalised Indians from assuming public office. And the oft-repeated argument these last few days is that Sonia's hesitation in becoming an Indian, which she did 10 years after being eligible for citizenship, clearly points to her lack of commitment to the nation.

But what this week has so far proved is that every argument remains just that till it is tested in the laboratory of the public mind. There is no reason to believe that merely because an analyst has expostulated on a phenomenon, it is the gospel truth. The gospel is what is being written out there by the masses, never mind if half the time it does not know its own mind, is grossly under-educated etc.

What Sonia Gandhi has been doing on her rounds of south India is to expose the fallacies that have been so far assiduously spread about her. First, it was the fear over her security or the lack of it. Parallels were drawn between the situation she would be finding herself in and the disastrous one her late husband found himself in Sriperumbudur nearly seven years ago. The fear was buttressed by the gutsy lady's decision to kick off her election campaign from the same spot where he was killed.

But the biggest ghost Sonia Gandhi has exorcised is not the fear over her meeting the same fate as her husband, or the public's apathy towards another goongi gudiya from the same family and the same party. It is the whispering campaign that has been going on ever since she announced her decision to canvass for the Congress party -- that it is her last-ditch battle to keep the names of the Bofors recipients from ever coming out of the closet. An election had been fought by her party on the issue of the kickbacks in 1989 and lost, the campaign then, as it is now, led by the sultans of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink variety. It was a classic case of the prosecution putting up a lacklustre performance and failing to provide even one convincing argument about the guilt of the accused -- but the sentence was passed since the defence's case was even weaker.

Naturally the anti-Sonia brigade believed that the prospect of the kickback scandal rearing its head would keep the lady at home where she belonged. But in Bangalore Sonia dismissed that possibility better than Shahid Afridi does the Indian bowling.

On Thursday, the nation saw the ex-premier's wife at her impassioned best, and what Jairam Ramesh's speech has done is to throw the gauntlet at the Opposition over the question of Bofors kickbacks. In 1989, the man who went on to win the election had promised that if he came to power he would have the names of the recipients in 30 days; nine years down the line, when the nation is no closer to knowing these names, his bluff, and the Opposition's, has been called. And purely as an aside, one could be excused for seeing shades of the other Mrs Gandhi in Karnataka.

On Thursday, Sonia Gandhi made it clear that politics is not something she will stay away from after these elections are over. It is now obvious, even if unstated, that the Congress party will soon see a Gandhi taking charge. Where the family is concerned, after eight years of abstinence, things are now ready for the return of the dynasty to the helm.

Of course, Sonia's performance on Thursday would make the analysts work overtime to proffer reasons why the lady should stay out of what is clearly the family business. But by the time they are read and understood, the public would have spoken their mind. The Gandhi juggernaut is well on the way now, and even if it does not convert certain defeat into victory for the Congress party this time round, it will make the party fit enough for the next round.

Personally, I don't think Sonia would ever assume the mantle of prime minister. The present exercise, in my opinion, is geared towards preparing the way for the next generation. And if you saw Priyanka Vadra nee Gandhi on the dais with her mother at Sriperumbudur on Sunday, there should be no doubt in your mind as to who it will be.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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