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Does the Sphinx have it in her? - The Free Press Journal

J.T. ()
January 19, 1998

Title: Does the Sphinx have it in her?
Author: J.T.
Publication: The Free Press Journal
Date: January 19, 1998

The shouts of joy that rent the sky when the lady of 10 Janpath
finally said Yes almost made it seem as though the dying 112-year-
old Congress party had suddenly become young and vibrant. It was
more a comment on the party's spineless and doddering leadership
that had brought the Congress almost to the point of extinction.
For so long had Congressmen been led by the nose by a dynastic
boss that they had been reduced to hollow, stuffed men with no
minds of their own, no stature worth the name. Twice in two years
the thoughtless leaders of the party had brought down the UF
governments, little knowing to what end. There was no way they
could improve their lot in the elections no way but to slide
further. Until Sonia Gandhi finally plunged into the fray the
party did not even know whose face they would put on its poll
posters. Instead of winning votes, Sitaram Kesri's face could
only lose more.

For Congressmen, long parched for a leader, the coming of Sonia
Gandhi was a godsend. Ever since the sudden passing away of her
husband, Rajiv Gandhi, the lady had consistently spurned all
attempts to pull her out into active politics. Within days of
Rajiv's assassination, the Congress working committee had offered
her the presidentship on a platter but she said no, she was in
mourning. But the attempts never ended, and the lady became a
power centre, without having any responsibility. It suited her,
because Sonia seemed very clear in her mind about her priorities:
She saw herself as the protector of the Gandhi legacy, but above
all she had to safeguard her own interests, not the least among
which was the ever-growing empire of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation
which she had set up. It had almost grown into an industry, with
no rights to any government agency to pry into its accounts. No
questions could be asked.

Repeated efforts by the Congress factions, especially the one
which called itself the Rajiv loyalists to pull her into the fray
got only an icy response from the enigmatic lady, until they
almost despaired. And so things would perhaps have remained if
the political scene had not become more and more of a threat to
Sonia. Narasimha Rao had become the Prime Minister and leader of
the Congress party with her full support and blessings, but it
had not taken long for him to grow wings and for rifts to grow.
Towards the middle of the Rao regime, Sonia had almost turned
against him, telling her confidants that "this man has to be

The coming of the first UF government ended Sonia's primacy in
politics and aggravated her fears that her interests would
suffer. With increased activity on the Bofors front, she grew
restive. Luckily for her, she was able to establish a working
arrangement with Prime Minister Gowda, one reason being that he
depended on the support of the Congress party which in turn lay
prostrate at the feet of the enigmatic lady of No. 10. Informed
sources now say that the reason why the Congress finally pulled
the rug from under Gowda's feet was Sonia's fears on Bofors, what
with growing pressures on the government to extradite the Italian
businessman, Ottavio Quattarochi, who was known to be one of her
closest confidants for over two decades. Sonia Gandhi had no
great reservations against Gowda's successor, 'gentleman Gujral',
for after all he had been a loyal minister of Indira Gandhi and
was not the type to get too tough on Rajiv Gandhi's widow. But
then Gujral was never a free agent and was under diverse
pressures, with the result that he did not have much control over
the turn or events. It now transpires that Sonia's paranoia was
largely responsible for the downfall of two Prime Ministers, one
CBI chief and the demise of the 11th Lok Sabha.

By all accounts, Sonia Gandhi would not have thrown herself into
the rough and tumble of elections politics, which had cost her
husband's life, unless she felt pushed to the wall. Which she
now most certainly did. She felt threatened more than ever
before. The Congress was on the point of disappearing from the
scene, the United Front had messed up two governments, and the
real political enemy, the Bharatiya Janata Party which had been
threatening to raise hell over 'Rome Raj' was increasingly on the
upswing and seemed set to grab power at the Centre.

All in all. it was time for a gamble, something that Sonia had
learnt well from her famous mother-in-law. 'When pushed to the
wall we Gandhis fight!' Despite all her aversion to the Indian
political fray - remember how she had pressed her husband to flee
the country when Indira Gandhi was down and out? - the only way
she could protect her interests was by having some political
clout. She needs a strong party if not a government behind her.

Now that she has taken the plunge, how far will she go?
Speculations are rife, and there is even opposition to the
possibility of her trying to become the Prime Minister, something
that is totally in the realms of speculation. Does she intend to
take over the reins of the party? Does she want to contest from
Amethi, does she want to field daughter Priyanka from Rai Bareli?
All these questions are doing the rounds, but of course nobody
has the final answers yet.

What seems certain, however, is that there would be a lot of
pressure on her to take over as the party president, especially
if it does well during the coming elections. Call it charisma, or
the sympathy for her dead husband, or the legacy of the Nehru-
Gandhi family, the fact remains that Sonia Gandhi is a crowd-
puller. May be it is simply the novelty factor that draws the
crowds, maybe it is the people's curiosity about the 'Sphinx-like
lady' that brings them to her meetings. Whatever it is, she is
certainly the only Congress leader who can draw the people.
Whether this would also translate into votes for die party is
another matter. Much would depend on whether the electorate is
swayed by the criticism of her opponents: About her foreign
birth, her designs to make the Congress party a tool of the
dynasty. These and other charges are bound to be heard more and
more as the election heat grows. The lady may well have
galvanized a moribund party, but to what end?

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