The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Supple surprise from cornered Sonia

New Delhi, June 14: The inflexible “inner voice” with its unilateral decisions was perhaps losing its sheen. Today, Sonia Gandhi found a new way to surprise — with suppleness.

In the late afternoon, many in the Congress had feared their leader might turn her personal choice of Shivraj Patil as presidential nominee into a suicidal prestige battle, ruining the relationship with key allies.

But Sonia accepted her mistake and climbed down — and then made the most of a bad situation through an inventive solution.

If being forced to switch one Patil with another was a political defeat, springing on the country its first likely woman President might count as a moral victory of sorts.

At 1.15 pm, Left leaders had politely but firmly conveyed to Sonia that the Union home minister was unacceptable to them.

Crucial southern ally M. Karunanidhi backed them, and Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad, too, began to express reservations about Patil.

Even some of Sonia’s die-hard supporters were looking nervous.

The Congress president seemed to have gone too far in her insistence on a loyalist, and was now pushed into a corner with the moral authority she had so painstakingly built up seemingly at risk.

The consequences of a showdown with the Left, so far her most valuable ally, could be far bigger than a loss in the presidential polls.

But Sonia held her calm. She agreed to consider “other candidates” and went into a huddle with Ahmed Patel, A.K. Antony and other political managers. Name after name was discussed and ruled out.

Then Sonia suggested Pratibha Patil’s name and, in an instant, a sense of relief was sweeping through the party.

Pratibha Patil met every criterion the Left and other allies could ask for. She held an MA and an LLB degree, and as Rajasthan governor had sent back a hawkish anti-conversion bill passed by the BJP regime.

A first woman President was not only a political masterstroke, it also meant Sonia did not have to backtrack all the way to the Pranab Mukherjees and Motilal Voras whom some of the allies appeared to favour.

By evening, accolades were pouring in from thrilled women’s groups.

“It is a sign that Indian democracy has come of age. I thank all who decided to field a woman in the presidential election,” said Girija Vyas, Congress leader as well as chairperson of the National Commission for Women.

Vyas said a woman President would be more sensitive to women’s issues, especially the serially stalled bill for 33 per cent reservation in legislatures.

Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal had become the first woman presidential candidate when the Left nominated her in 2002, but she lost to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Pratibha Patil would be tipped to win.

“We are thrilled that a woman has been nominated for the top post,” said Sudha Sundaramanan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

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