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An extraordinary evening with Mrs Gandhi
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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May 18, 2005 02:43 IST

"Why should I become the prime minister NOW?" Congress president Sonia Gandhi [Images] said, when asked if she would reconsider last May's decision not to become prime minister.

The 'Now' is being seen the operative word in the statement.

While a bit taken aback by the question, she said, "Why should I? Not at all. The question doesn't arise. There is a prime minister who is a man of integrity and is doing exceedingly well."

Sonia, after one year in power, had invited reporters who covered the Congress party and the prime minister's office.

She was well prepared, calculative and careful as she gave every reporter a chance to ask anything s/he wanted to. She breezed through tables spread out on the green lawn.

She sat down at each table for some ten minutes and answered on expected lines on most subjects except Bihar, on which she was not even ready to offer a line.

She said: "Bihar is Bihar and let us leave it at that."

Sonia wore a maroon cotton sari. She had light make up on and wore small diamond studded earrings. She was wearing an old fashioned European watch and deep-red threads around her wrist. She looks thinner in person than looks on television. She looks healthy and fit.

Though she was asked more than 50 questions, she remained relaxed and amicable while being witty at the same time.

Her Hindi is probably better than her English.

Behind Sonia's carefully crafted persona, her likes and dislikes are not easily evident.

That was her biggest success today too.

Madam, as everyone addressed her, is quite good at eating with her hands.

She ate one medu vada with coconut chutney with her hands. At home, she eats less and also does yoga.

When asked to rate the UPA government (Manmohan Singh [Images] gave the government six on 10), she avoided hazarding a risk and said, "I am not that good at mathematics."

She added, "I listened to him (Dr Singh) carefully. He never gave any rating. But anyway, he is always understated."

When told that he gave her ten on ten, she said, "He is always generous to me."

Though her opinions on most matters of the UPA government and the Congress were noncommittal and nondescript, her interactions with media made the hot summer evening out of the ordinary. This was because she seemed to be enjoying it and was friendly in her approach.

When asked about her experiences of the past year, She said, "Then, I was one year younger!"

There were no cameras on the green lawn. Sonia's security guards were in mufti and not in safari suit. And it looked like she was in no hurry to leave.

At the table of a Delhi-based reporter from Kerala [Images], she said, "In Kerala, we were extra patient."

About the approaching election in the state, she said every Congress worker would have to take special efforts and work hard.

When asked about Karunakaran parting ways, she curtly said, "Karunakaran would have caused a great deal of damage remaining within," adding, "I hope things will be better now."

Sonia rarely forgets that she is Mrs. Gandhi. When asked about the pending Tribal Bill, she said, "We belong to a family that is particularly caring for Tribals."

When she was asked about the Women's Reservation Bill, on which the Congress, Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party, all agreed, she didn't give direct answer and merely said that Home Minister Shivraj Patil was talking to all the parties.

On the issue of infighting in the BJP, she said to one reporter, "It's the internal matter of the BJP."

But at another table, she did say that khit pit (internal clashes) on the "other side" was much more.

Her mood of the evening was to tell the media, "I think it is our first experience and we have not done badly".

She repeated her stock answer on the Left many a time during the evening. She said that in Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala, the Congress opposed the Left. She said that the Congress has consciously entered into a coalition and sought the support of the Leftist.

She defended the party's performance in the Bihar elections, saying, "Congress Jyada neeche to nahin gayi na! (The position of the Congress isn't that low.)

When asked if her image got tarnished because of the Goa [Images] and Jharkhand episodes, she merely said, "Have you read Outlook?"

The weekly has alleged that National Democratic Alliance had paid money to buy support to form government in Jharkhand.

She accepted that in Jharkhand, her party committed a lot of mistakes.

When asked, if, despite there being no great differences between Dr Singh and her, it was healthy for a democracy to have a setup where she handled political matters while the latter ran the government, she said, "As you said, there is no major problem. Then, why worry?"

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