Sonia Gandhi has wisely refrained from fielding daughter, Priyanka Vadra, against Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lucknow. Notwithstanding the carefully crafted media hype, Priyanka as political piece the resistance strains credulity. For the past several years, her public profile consists exclusively of the parties, fashion shows and cultural events she attends, the restaurants she dines at, and the Italian eatery she wished to launch at a controversial shopping arcade. Of course, there have been valiant attempts to buttress her curriculum vitae, first as a social worker and now as a ‘born’ leader.
As such, Priyanka as challenger to a statesman of Vajpayee’s stature would have enraged public opinion for its sheer presumptuousness. Far from being the mother of all campaigns, it would have been a re-run of the Rajiv Gandhi vs Menaka Gandhi contest in Amethi, in which the latter was perceived as the ‘pretender.’
I suspect, however, that there were far more pragmatic reasons behind Sonia Gandhi’s prudence. Fielding Priyanka at a time when Congressmen have virtually conceded defeat in Bellary would have put her own putative comeback in Amethi in jeopardy. After all, Congress did not win a single seat in Uttar Pradesh in 1998, not even Amethi, so victory cannot be taken for granted. The very fact that Congress has pinned all hopes on Priyanka exposes the organization’s hollowness, not to mention Sonia’s own charisma, in this crucial constituency.
Despite this, Sonia has more important reasons to keep Priyanka at bay, at least in this election. Bringing Priyanka into the fray in mid-stream would be like admitting the opposition charge that she is a ‘foreigner.’ It would also create a rival centre of power in the party, a fact the canny Signora would not relish.
Even so, Dr Karan Singh’s candidature is an anti-climax. It is not that Singh lacks credentials. Well known nationally and internationally, a blue-blooded royal, former minister, former ambassador, and erudite scholar, he easily ranks among India’s least pretentious and popular ex-maharajahs. But not even the most diehard optimist gives him – a rank outsider in Lucknow – an outside chance against Vajpayee.
Analyzing Singh’s nomination, however, helps understand Sonia’s mindset and style of functioning. As always, the script is prepared in secret with the backroom boys, and the party merely told the role it is expected to play. But the trouble with backroom boys is that they are distant from the ground reality, and also, they tend to repeat an idea/slogan/trick that has succeeded in an entirely different context. A case of trying to fool all the people all the time.
To understand, recall 1984. A Congress expecting a landslide victory in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination decided to humiliate the opposition at the hustings. Former Gwalior ruler, Madhavrao Scindia, was sprung on an unsuspecting Vajpayee, and the stalwart bit the dust. But that was Scindia territory, then. Today, in 1999, Madhavrao has fled Gwalior to seek refuge in his mother’s constituency, Guna.
Congress’ backroom boys, however, don’t factor in such minor details when they prepare their grand strategies. They have to avenge Bellary. Never mind that Vajpayee is now fighting from Lucknow in UP (and not MP), and that Scindia doesn’t have the stomach for a fight anywhere. Scindia’s samdhi (daughter’s father-in-law) is roped in to do the trick. After all, old wine in a new bottle is better than new wine in an old bottle. Readers who could not fathom how Dr Karan Singh suddenly emerged as Congress’s great white hope in Lucknow, would now have the mystery cleared up. It’s yesterday once more – 1984 in 1999.
This raises fundamental questions about Sonia Gandhi’s persona and style of politics. For all her shrill, staccato style of shooting off charges and innuendos against opponents, Sonia Gandhi’s campaign lacks credibility because of her shoddy political skills, lack of knowledge of the country and its ethos, and poor responses in a complex and dynamic national and international situation. This gives her campaign an utterly bizarre and unreal quality – it is difficult to believe that it is taking place in the same time zone as the BJP’s.
I will list only a few obvious points. About a fortnight ago, a Catholic priest, Father Arul Doss, was murdered in Orissa. The Prime Minister was quick to condemn the killing and demand that the state government take action to arrest the culprits and enforce the rule of law. Sonia Gandhi, however, has maintained a studied silence on the issue. No doubt she will speak when she goes to campaign in Orissa, for by then the backroom boys would have written a suitably emotive text; till then, she need not even denounce the incident, something that even VHP supremo Ashok Singhal has done. Nor will she comment on the increased social unrest caused by the Christian insistence on conversions. The US desire to send a so-called ‘religious envoy’ (whatever that means) and the Government’s refusal to succumb to this unwarranted interference, also went unnoticed by the Signora.
Then, Sonia Gandhi has called the Prime Minister a traitor and dubbed the Kargil victory a failure. But she has maintained a deafening silence on the fate of the four missing Indian soldiers who are suspected to be in Pakistani custody. Incidents take place on the border daily, but she appears unconcerned. She supported the gross allegations of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, but did not comment upon fairly extensive press reports on the initial failure of army intelligence and ground level commanders. Perhaps the reason is that she cannot then blame the government for political failure. Or perhaps her speechwriters failed to provide copy. One shudders to think where India would be today if President Narayanan had actually succeeded in swearing her in as Prime Minister.
Above all, there is the issue of Bofors. Sonia fell silent after the BJP provided reams of evidence about countryman Ottavio Quattrochi’s complicity in the Bofors payoff scandal, while party spokesman Kapil Sibal tried to cover up, saying there was nothing illegal about Quattrochi’s contract with Bofors. But now that she is standing for public office, Sonia Gandhi has to tell the nation in what capacity Quattrochi negotiated the deal, how and why he was entertained by the Rajiv Government, which had said there would be no middlemen in the deal. The pertinent issue, which has been exercising the nation since the scandal first broke out, is whether Quattrochi was a front man for other parties in the deal, and who these parties are.
Finally, Sonia has loftily declared that she became an Indian the day she became Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, and that actual citizenship is a mere technicality. But what is the Hindu ethos that she has imbibed from her mother-in-law and from her thirty years stay in this country? Today, as she covers her head for election meetings, one is tempted to ask why she never knew that in this country, no matter what you do in your secular life, the Hindu temple is the one place where you must cover your head. Out of respect to God. Particularly in South India. But both she and Priyanka thought nothing of storming into sanctum sanctorum of Tirupathi, the holiest of our holy shrines, bare-headed, after refusing to sign the register expressing faith in Lord Balaji. It was an assault on the very roots of Indian culture.
The Pioneer, 14 September 1999