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Such a must spectacle - The Indian Express

T.V.R. Shenoy ()
January 17, 1998

Title: Such a must spectacle
Author: T.V.R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 17, 1998

er campaigning shall definitely make a difference," P.
Chidambaram mused aloud at a press conference. Before the
assembled media's raised eyebrows had time to drop, he grinned
and continued, "in other states." I don't need to spell out the
identity of that enigmatic 'Her', do I? But I must say the
Tamilian from Cambridge (USA) is definitely politer about Sonia
Gandhi than the Tamilian from Cambridge (UK). At least he isn't
describing her decision to campaign for Sitaram Kesri as "half-
cocked".

Yet Chidambaram is only half-correct. He is right in implicitly
saying that Sonia Gandhi has, at best, a certain curiosity value
in Tamil Nadu. And any lingering doubts that the Tamil Maanila
Congress might have had should have been dismissed for good after
Sonia Gandhi launched her campaign at Sriperumbudur. There were,
at the Congress's own generous estimate, a mere fifteen thousand
in the audience - almost entirely the party faithful at that.

No, for the moment anyway, Karuppiah Moopanar won lead his men
away from Karunanidhi. He has even stated that the TMC has no
plan to return to the parent party after the elections. So much
for Tamil Nadu, but which are the "other states" that Chidambaram
mentioned?

Definitely not Madhya Pradesh, judging by the attitude of Sonia
Gandhi's param-bhakt Arjun Singh. In the last election the Thakur
>from Satna was beaten by both the BJP and the BSP candidates on
his own turf. But in 1996 he was in the Congress (T), lacking
whatever little protection the Congress(I) hand might have given.

Arjun Singh now has the reunited Congress behind him. He has
been assured by Kanshi Ram that the BSP won't put up any
candidate against him. Above all, he has convinced his goddess to
hit the election trail.

He slinks away to a "safe seat" in Hoshangabad, that's what he
does. That is not a sign of confidence in the Nehru-Gandhi
family's vote-catching abilities.

Of course, Madhya Pradesh is a stronghold of the BJP, so there is
some excuse when this scion of the Rajputs displays a clean pair
of heels. But that isn't true of, say, Kerala - a state where
the BJP failed to poll even 10 percent of the votes in 1996.

Yet even in Kerala I find senior Congress leaders, even vocal
Nehru-Gandhi loyalists, strangely reluctant to contest seats lost
by the narrowest of margins. In 1996, Thrissur provided a cliff-
hanger of a contest, with the advantage teetering from the
Congress to the Left and back again. Ultimately, however, the
Congress's veteran campaigner K. Karunakaran lost the fight.

I personally believe that Kerala is a state where Sonia Gandhi
genuinely has a chance to make a difference. But that assessment
clearly isn't shared by Karunakaran.

Kerala isn't a state that sees massive swings in voting patterns.
The margins between the Left and the Congress are generally less
than 10 percent. What is more, the ruling CPI(M) isn't its old
disciplined' self, with the new boss, Achuthanandan, gunning for
the trade unionists in the CITU.

Given all this, Sonia Gandhi could tilt the scales in favour of
her faithful. But 'Leader' (his followers preferred term for
Karunakaran) is reluctant to test his fortunes in Thrissur again
even if the 'Supreme Leader' is willing to campaign.

What of that other bastion of the Left, West Bengal? To be
honest, Sonia Gandhi is no match for the venerable Jyoti Basu.
But couldn't she at least do a better job of bringing home the
prodigals from the Trinamool Congress?

One or two of the rebels have returned, but not Mamata Bannerjee
and Mani Shankar Aiyar.

How about the two largest states in the country? I used to
believe the Congress couldn't possibly do worse in Uttar Pradesh
and Bihar than in the Rao era. Well, I was wrong.

For the first time in the history of the party, the Congress has
conceded the majority of Bihar's 54 seats to its allies. (Ally-in-
chief Laloo Prasad Yadav reciprocated by advising Sonia Gandhi to
stay at home.) As for giant Uttar Pradesh, well, I think the
BJP's performance in the Legislative Conned polls speaks for
itself.

I could go on with a state-by-state analysis, but why bother?
The point is that every Congress worker insists that the arrival
of Sonia Gandhi will make a difference for the better - except in
his/her own state.

But let us dig a little deeper: forget the average Congressman,
is Sonia Gandhi sure of herself? Why is she shying away from
contesting from Amethi? Why is she so reluctant to assume the
presidency of the Congress? Why is she refusing to be described
as the Congress candidate for Prime Minister?

Everything about Sonia Gandhi betrays a eader utterly
unconvinced of her own abilities. She doesn't, to name but one
point, dare to address a press conference. Is she, perhaps,
scared of facing questions about her stewardship of the various
cash-cow trusts she controls?

An election is supposed to be a dialogue between the electorate
and the would-be rulers. But Sonia Gandhi doesn't seem to accept
that. Her idea of campaigning is to orate from fifteen minutes to
half an hour from a platform. That isn a dialogue, dear
Congressmen, it is a sermon from the mountain.

By the way, judging by the Sriperumbudur performance, Sonia
Gandhi desperately needs to find better speech-writers. A
programme beginning and ending with "Thou shalt vote for the
Congress" without explaining why isn't terribly inspiring. Not
even if those words are then echoed in Priyanka Vadra's chastest
Tamil.

I have never seen a more peculiar campaign conducted by the
mighty Congress. The party president is almost entirely absent
>from its posters and its platforms. Meanwhile, the chief
campaigner, the "inspiration" of the Congress, is hiding from the
media. And both coyly refuse to stand for election.

Frankly, Narasimha Rao comes off better by comparison.
Amazingly, he is still ready to face his old constituents - if
his graceless enemies in the CWC give him the chance. Can any of
those megaphone-mouthed Sonia Gandhi bhakts - the Thakur of Satna
comes to mind - dare to do so?

Chidambaram is probably correct in that Sonia Gandhi isn't a
factor in Tamil Nadu. But if even old friends in the TMC aren't
swayed by her, what makes Congressmen assume that ordinary voters
shall fall at her feet?


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