| Sonia Gandhi at Baduria on Thursday. Picture by Amit Dutta
Calcutta, April 20: For 13-year-old Sabia Khatun, it was like going to the movies.
Clad in a bright red outfit ' with red lipstick and dangling earrings ' on a hot afternoon, she said: “I have seen her on TV, but it’s never the same as seeing her with my own eyes. But it is too hot to stay and listen to her speech.”
It was the person, and not the politics, that seemed to be more important at Sonia Gandhi’s three meetings today in Bengal. But then it was a day of celebrity campaigners.
Jaya Bachchan took the dais, with a giant umbrella as protection against the sun, in Howrah for the Samajwadi Party. Her Bengali enriched by a generous sprinkling of English, she said she had come to seek votes as “your daughter”.
The presence of the two in Bengal on the same day was a curious coincidence since the germ of Sonia’s recent resignation as MP lay in a complaint against Jaya about holding an office of profit despite being a member of Parliament.
For Sonia, this was the first time she was taking a public podium in the state since the 2004 Lok Sabha election victory followed by the renunciation of the Prime Minister’s post.
That act may have had something to do with Sabia’s effusive description of her as the “protector of the nation”.
But there was politics, too. The question before today was: how would Sonia handle the campaign in Bengal against the CPM that is an ally in Delhi' She gave the answer.
At none of the three meetings ' at Baduria in North 24-Parganas, Garden Reach and Park Circus ' did she mention the CPM or any of its leaders. It was the government ' better still, the quality of governance ' she attacked.
“It pains me to see what is happening in Bengal in the name of helping the worker, the poor and the weak,” she said.
“Lakhs of people have been rendered jobless, over 35,000 factories are closed, workers in tea gardens are facing starvation.”
In other words, Sonia was targeting what Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the CPM have made their slogan for this election: development. But there were no names ' an election speech is never complete without identifying the rival.
That was left to Pranab Mukherjee, the state Congress chief and defence minister.
Speaking of governance, Sonia had trouble finding a reference point for her party in recent memory to say the Congress would have done better than the current government. She had to travel back over 50 years.
“After Independence, the Congress was in power in Bengal. During Congress rule, the state’s condition was better. But see the deterioration now,” she said.
Few at the Park Circus meeting would have been old enough to nurse post-Independence memories but there were exceptions. Octogenarian Gulshan Ara had travelled from Beckbagan to listen to Sonia. Having attended rallies by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, she smiled as she saw glimpses of the mother-in-law in Sonia, accented Hindi notwithstanding.
“She can’t compare to Indira, but Sonia is a little like her, in speech, manner and bearing,” said Gulshan.
Sonia, too, talked about Indira and Rajiv. “Congress Prime Ministers have always helped Bengal ' from the Farakka thermal power station to the Metro'. Even now, whatever the Bengal government is asking, the UPA government has given.”
She looked back. Romola Bala, who had spent over three hours in the sun on the grounds of Dilip Memorial High School in Basirhat, kept her eyes glued to the small binocular her husband had bought last week, smiling through Sonia’s speech.
Not everyone was happy with the celebrity viewing, though. Abala Baidya, 65, had finished cooking by 10 am and travelled to the venue to be disappointed by a 10-minute speech. “We were waiting here for four hours. I thought she would speak for at least half-an-hour,” she complained.
“Thousands of people, including Congress supporters, have been killed,” Sonia said, continuing to attack the Left Front on governance. “Yeh yahan ki kanoon vyavastha ki tasveer hai (This is the picture of the state’s law and order).”
At all three meetings, it was the large number of women that caught the eye. They were eager to share a few moments with one of their own who speaks from a position of power, towering over such men as Pranab Mukherjee.
At the Garden Reach rally, as she emerged from the helicopter and climbed on the dais, waving to the crowd, 36-year-old Mehrunnisa, jewellery bedecked, bubbled with admiration.
“She’s much fairer than she appears on TV. Unless you see her, you can’t understand how attractive she is,” she said. Mehrunnisa’s eight-year-old daughter shimmered in a blue satin dress.