The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Last woman standing

New Delhi, May 13: Sonia Gandhi’s favourite phrase is: “They do not know the stuff I am made of.”

Pitted against heavy odds, Sonia has had to prove herself again and again and today she proved herself emphatically by leading the Congress to an unexpected victory.

She was the Congress’ lone campaigner, addressing 90 public meetings in a fortnight and travelling over 70,000 kilometres. While she drew the crowds, her opponents poked fun, even calling her a “Jersey cow”. But the grit kept her going.

Several evenings, after a long day, she would sit with Priyanka or Rahul to reflect. Each time she sounded disheartened, Priyanka would tell her: “Mama, the more they attack you, the worse they will get it.” Sonia would smile feebly and start playing with grandchildren Rehan and Meera.

Sonia’s role as campaigner has to be put in context. She had no support whatsoever from other notables in the party. Going by the candidates’ demand, apart from Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul, the most popular campaigners were Govinda, Sunil Dutt and Dilip Kumar. Almost the entire Congress Working Committee (CWC) remained confined to Delhi. Manmohan Singh travelled little. His meetings were called off in Indore and elsewhere as the good doctor does not have a mass following. Kamal Nath remained in Chhindwara where he was contesting, Digvijay Singh fought a lost battle in Rajgarh while Arjun Singh toured reluctantly to a few places, failing to get even a single seat for his supporters.

Ambika Soni, Ahmad Patel, Mohsina Kidwai, Motilal Vora, R.K. Dhawan, Oscar Fernandes and several other “senior leaders” stayed in Delhi or paid odd visits to the states they were in charge of as party general secretaries. Most were seen in Sonia’s company when she toured their states, waving to voters who often asked about their identity.

This was in sharp contrast to the BJP’s well-oiled machinery that included seasoned campaigners like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi.

The Congress also severely lacked in resources. It had fewer aircraft and choppers and lagged behind in the media blitz.

Family sources said Sonia has always had to work hard to achieve her goals. Marriage to Rajiv Gandhi was not easy as she faced stiff opposition from her father Stephano Maino. Stephano died in 1988, 20 years after Sonia’s wedding, but never visited India. After her marriage, Sonia had to overcome several difficulties, including streamlining relations with Sanjay Gandhi and Maneka, learning Hindi and getting used to Indian food. Indira Gandhi’s associates and friends recall that Sonia did all this with a smile.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s death, Sonia was bitterly opposed to Rajiv Gandhi’s entry into politics but gave in when he told her plainly that he had to assist mother Indira Gandhi. By her own admission, she “fought like a tigress” when Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. “I had always feared for Rajiv’s safety,” Sonia said. Her worst fears came true in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991.

After the assassination, Sonia tried to keep a low profile. She rejected the CWC’s appeal to her to take Rajiv Gandhi’s place in 1991 but Congress workers did not give up. In 1998, Sonia finally joined the Congress when the party under Sitaram Kesri started losing its leaders and its credibility.

Speaking to The Telegraph, a close Sonia associate said: “Destiny has its own ways of functioning. Here is Sonia who perhaps never aspired to such a role. Now it is knocking on her door.”

Destiny, of course, has its own way of functioning. In June 1991, Sonia had “requested” then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to hold the first meeting of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation at 10 Janpath instead of 7 Race Course Road that used to be Rajiv Gandhi’s office.

If Sonia becomes Prime Minister, she will move to Race Course Road bungalows number 7, 5 and 3 consisting of the Prime Minister’s office at residence and residential quarters.

Possibly the biggest surprise of this election where the Congress is recording such a win after 20 years. A slap in the face of Narendra Modi who had won a landslide Assembly election less than two years ago after the Godhra train massacre and the riots that followed. Anti-incumbency at work here with discontent among farmers. Plus there was infighting in the BJP, and anger among VHP cadre at riot accused being booked on the Supreme Court’s orders. The so-called laboratory of the VHP brand of ‘Hindutva’ emits acid smoke for Modi.

Uttar Pradesh
After Gujarat, this would hurt the BJP most because all heavyweights, Vajpayee included, were drafted in here in a last big push. The Samajwadi Party surged ahead because the feared split in its Muslim vote bank did not take place and the alliance with Ajit Singh was a hit. Mayavati’s Dalit votes remained intact as expected. Both, along with the Congress, may have received upper-caste votes shifting away from the BJP.

Tamil Nadu
A simple numbers game. The DMK-led seven-party alliance, where the Congress is a constituent, had over 57 per cent vote share as opposed to around 32 per cent for the Jayalalithaa-BJP combine. A clean sweep is only a minor surprise in this unequal contest.

A strong undercurrent of anti-incumbency would have swept the Congress away had it not been for the alliance with Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Arithmetic again succeeds here, acting as a bulwark against resentment at Sushil Shinde government’s performance. Honours are more or less evenly split; the Congress would have done better if it had got some of the smaller parties in, too.

Sweep for the Congress which, now it seems, rightly tied up with the JMM. The arithmetic combines well with anti-incumbency, working against the BJP.

Vote for change, but also a resounding vote for arithmetic. The Assembly is hung where the BJP, despite being the single largest party, is way below the majority mark. The Congress and Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (S) fought separately and have collected nearly the equal number of seats. Lok Sabha results are no different. The two can be expected to forge a post-poll alliance.

Andhra Pradesh
Tumultuous wave of anti-incumbency against CEO Chandrababu Naidu, who loses power in the state, taking the BJP down with him in Delhi. The Congress got its sums right, tying up with the Telengana regional party.

Ram Vilas Paswan made the difference, giving the winning edge to the RJD-Congress-Left alliance with his small but crucial share of votes. The RJD and the Congress, which already had Yadav and Muslim votes on their side, got the crucial Dalit support after Paswan joined them. The BJP-Janata Dal (U) rival wasn’t strong enough. Laloo Prasad surprises again.

Proof again that anti-incumbency does not work here. If anything, there was a wave against Mamata Banerjee, the opposition leader. Only she has won in the Trinamul-BJP alliance. The Congress makes surprise gains and the Left improves, too, even after 27 years in power, becoming a big player in Delhi.

Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh
The BJP’s honeymoon period is still on in all three states, where the party swept back to power in the Assembly elections in December. Four months is too short a time for voters to change their minds. Besides, the Congress was completely demoralised.

Candidates of ruling parties in each of the seven states have done well here. One region where incumbency seems to work in favour of parties.

Anti-incumbency combines with a groundswell of resentment against factionalism in the Congress results in the party’s worst showing ever. It has drawn a blank. The only seat in the alliance was won by its partner, the Muslim League.

Naveen Patnaik survives anti-incumbency. Congress’ J.B. Patnaik, with his controversial past, was seen as no alternative to Naveen, who has a clean image. The chief minister, a BJP ally, made corruption a campaign plank.

Sheila Dikshit’s government not only bucks anti-incumbency, but routs the BJP in India’s capital. Like MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress had won Assembly elections here in December. People have stayed with it.

Anti-incumbency against the Congress’ Amarinder Singh government, opposition to his one-point agenda of pinning down Parkash Singh Badal on corruption charges.

Here, Om Prakash Chautala’s government was at the receiving end of voters’ wrath. The break-up of his alliance with the BJP also helped the Congress.

Himachal Pradesh
With Sukh Ram back and ex-servicmen rooting for the party, the Congress sweeps. People do not appear to have forgotten the corruption in Prem Kumar Dhumal’s government a year ago.



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