Heptanesia Mumbaikar


Is it true," I ask Sonia Gandhi, "that when your party comes to power, you will stay on as Congress president and he will be prime minister?" I am at a lunch hosted by Bombay Congress boss Murli Deora at the CCI on Quit India Day, and asking Sonia the one question permitted to each journalist present.

Sonia grins, the dimples soften her otherwise dour countenance. She looks at Dr Manmohan Singh -- the 'he' in my inquiry -- with apparent amusement and says, "It is too early. We will cross the bridge when we come to it."

Dr Singh is unamused; he refuses to speak to me that afternoon.

The White Woman wants to be prime minister!" The Pundit tells me last month. He is speaking in Malayalam and in cipher to confuse the catering staff at the India International Centre. I tell him about my conversation at the CCI, but he shakes his head. He has been close to the Nehru dynasty for 25 years, someone who knew both Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi. "There is no doubt," he says. "She will not allow anyone else to be prime minister."

He speaks about Priyanka's ambition ("she is very eager to enter politics"), but dismisses her as, "not very bright." Sonia, he reveals, would like nothing better than for Rahul to make politics his career. But, adds the Pundit, the lad -- who lives abroad and is reported to have a Latino girlfriend -- is not apparently enamoured of returning to India.

The dark horse, he whispers, could be Feroze Varun Gandhi, who turned 19 on March 5. Mamma Maneka, who nixed Varun's plans of becoming a journalist, wants her son to become a member of the Congress party two years hence when he turns 21. "How can Sonia turn down her nephew's application?" smiles the Pundit conspiratorially, "And who knows what will happen after Varun becomes a Congressman?"

I am reminded of all this when I glance at the responses that flood the news@rediff.co.in mailbox. Any column that challenges or supports Rajiv Gandhi's widow is greeted by an avalanche of reader comment. Almost all of them are appalled that a foreigner could lead a country of a billion people soon. Most of them respond the way V S Naipaul did when I asked him what he thought of Sonia becoming prime minister. "India is not an Italian village!" Sir Vidia growled on his last visit to India, clearly aghast at the possibility.

But the BJP could have a problem if it puts all its eggs in the 'Do you want a foreigner as prime minister?' basket? Last Friday night, the audience was clearly divided on the issue on Question Time India, Prannoy Roy's programme for the BBC.

Initially, the mood seemed anti-Sonia, but then a Sardar put the BJP's Sushma Swaraj in a spot, asking her if the BJP was against Sonia only because she was a woman and whether her party would accept his son, if he was born and brought up in the US, returning to India to become prime minister. Swaraj sputtered, and her unconvincing responses gave the BJP's game away and carried the audience Sonia's way.

I wonder if this xenophobia that the BJP is counting on will work at the hustings. I can't see it working too well among the wretched of the earth who have always had a tender affection for the Nehru clan. And by showing its hand so early in the game, the BJP may have allowed Sonia enough time to deliver a counterpunch.

On current form though, I doubt if that will happen. Sonia relies too much on losers like Arjun Singh, Ajit Jogi and R D Pradhan, and I can't see her produce the cunning that her husband produced in the winter of 1984. Remember the way he fielded Madhavrao Scindia at the very last minute against Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a contest that the veteran lost humiliatingly?

If her mother-in-law were to return from Valhalla, or wherever the departed statesmen of our time reside, she would probably tell Sonia to let the BJP beat its dindora about Bharatiya bano, Bharatiya chuno. Come September, when the electorate has tired of the din, produce Dr Singh as her prime ministerial candidate. The BJP may then accuse Sonia of running scared, but with The Man Who Can Do No Wrong at the wheel of the Congress rath, would the people care?

Heptanesia Mumbaikar works at Rediff On The NeT. Photographs: Jewella C Miranda.