| Sonia, flanked by Priyanka and Rahul, in Rae Bareli on Monday. (AFP)
Rae Bareli, April 17: Prayer, paperwork, prayer again, and two kilometres separated by faith.
Sonia Gandhi today turned a mere political ritual into a message of secularism by honouring both Hindu and Muslim traditions as she stepped into home turf Rae Bareli to file her nomination for the May 8 by-election.
She first attended a havan at the Congress office here and then ' like her late husband and mother-in-law ' hopped across to Takia, 2 km away, for a quiet prayer at the mazar of a famous Muslim scholar. The paperwork came somewhere in between.
At 11 this morning, Sonia reached her party office, where five priests lit the fire for the havan. The Congress chief, dressed in an off-white sari with blue border, sat with hands clasped as they chanted Vedic hymns.
Sitting close by were son Rahul, daughter Priyanka, her daughter’s husband Robert, former MP Satish Sharma and a host of other senior Congress leaders. The prayer lasted half an hour. Prayer over, Sonia left for the district magistrate’s office to file her papers.
The formalities were over in just about 15 minutes. Sonia then proceeded to Takia, the birthplace of Ali Mian Naqvi, who was the rector of Nadua, a famous seminary in Lucknow, and also the first president of the All India Muslim personal Law Board.
“Sonia spent some quiet moments in front of the mazar,” said Siraz Mehandi, a Congress member of the legislative council who accompanied her.
Takia, a small, semi-urban hub, has been made famous by the Gandhis. Whenever Indira Gandhi used to contest from here, she would make it a point to visit the place. Rajiv Gandhi, who often accompanied his mother during her trips to these parts, also used to visit the place.
After filing her papers, Sonia said Rae Bareli is a “karam bhoomi” (workplace) for her and her family. “During all my visits I get reassurance and support from people here. I am touched by their love and faith in me,” she told reporters.
The Congress chief, who resigned as MP in the wake of the office-of-profit controversy leading to the bypoll, recalled her late father-in-law Feroze Gandhi, who, too, had contested elections from here. “This long association ' has helped my family get inspiration from the people here,” Sonia said.
On her party’s prospects in the Assembly polls due next year in Uttar Pradesh, she said: “I am sure things will start looking up. We will take things from here to the rest of the state. Things are looking up now.”
Sonia said “there have been some good works in the constituency” but added that things need to be “speeded up”. “After I win from here for the second time, the pending schemes would be expedited,” she said.
Rahul, the MP from Amethi, and Priyanka, in a lemon yellow sari, a faint mark of vermilion that a priest had smeared on her forehead during the havan, stood beside their mother as Sonia talked to the media.
Priyanka had waved to the waiting crowds all the way from the state capital Lucknow to Rae Bareli. The crowds had waved back.
While Sonia filed her papers, her supporters plastered Rae Bareli with posters, urging residents to vote for her.
Sonia’s rival from the ruling Samajwadi Party will be Rajkumar Chowdhury, a relative of veteran leader Beni Prasad Verma.
In the last election in 2004, Sonia had won by a margin of 2,49,765 votes against her nearest rival, Ashok Singh, of the Samajwadi Party. This time, Singh has decided to support Sonia.
A rickshaw-puller, Moti Lal, has also filed his papers as an Independent candidate against the Congress president.