Sonia being showered with rose petals on her way to file her nomination in Rae Bareli on Wednesday. Picture by Naeem Ansari
Rae Bareli, April 2: Sonia Gandhi had just stepped off a bed of roses and into the arena when the question rang out.
“Will this be your last contest?” a journalist asked from behind the barricade outside the collector’s office in Rae Bareli.
Sonia, who was coming out after filing her nomination, appeared to have been somewhat surprised.
She paused for a moment before replying: “Why?” It was more an exclamation than a question.
At 67, Sonia is at an age when many politicians in India just about begin to bloom and a bow-out is the last thing on their minds. Exhibit number one is L.K. Advani, who is again running for public office at 86 and who is yet to retire the thought of occupying India’s most coveted corner office.
But two factors have come into play in the public life of Sonia that perhaps made the question poignant as well as relevant.
Rahul Gandhi is now in the driver’s seat for all practical purposes — the son did drive the mother to the collector’s office today, unlike five years ago when Rajiv Gandhi’s aide Satish Sharma was at the wheel. Under Rahul, the Congress is thought to be fighting its toughest battle in recent memory and it is unclear what shape the party will take after the general election.
Questions about Sonia’s health also crop up once in a while — an issue that keeps simmering because of the party’s refusal to discuss the matter. Sonia’s visits to Rae Bareli had become less frequent in the last term, prompting many to wonder whether she would contest at all this time.
As Sonia made her way through a blizzard of rose and marigold petals — at one point a stretch on the road had become a bed of roses — few who had converged outside the collector’s office in Rae Bareli town today voiced such doubts. But in the air was a sense that something momentous was unfolding after an astonishing journey, though only time will tell how prescient Rae Bareli was this afternoon.
The first and the eleventh pages of the 13-page affidavit Sonia filed today tell how extraordinary that journey has been. The very last sentence on Page 11 says under the head highest educational qualifications: “Three years course in foreign languages (English and French) completed in 1964 at Instituto Santa Teresa via Santa Teresa, 10 Turin…. Certificate in English from Lennox Cook School, Cambridge. Completed in 1965.”
From the 1960s in Turin and Cambridge, cut to 2014 in Uttar Pradesh and the first page of the affidavit. “I, Sonia Gandhi, wife of late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, aged approximately 67 years, resident of 10, Janpath, New Delhi, presently at Rae Bareli... I am a candidate set up by Indian National Congress,” the affidavit declared.
As she stepped out after filing her nomination, Sonia said: “The people of Rae Bareli love me and I am sure this time too they will vote for me to ensure my victory.”
In 2009, she had won by a margin of over 1.6 lakh votes from the seat she had first contested in 2004, when she vacated Amethi for Rahul. Sonia won from Rae Bareli again in a byelection in 2006, after stepping down as MP over the office-of-profit controversy.
Rae Bareli has been a Nehru-Gandhi turf since Feroze Gandhi, Sonia’s father-in-law, represented it in the 1950s.
Custom may have been broken when Rahul took the wheel at Fursatganj airport but traditions were preserved.
Sonia reached here around 12.30pm and performed a havan at the residence of late Congress leader Gaya Prasad Shukla, who used to be Indira Gandhi’s poll representative when she contested from here. The tradition has been continuing since Indira Gandhi’s time as Rae Bareli MP, from 1967 to 1977. The havan was performed by family priest Radheshyam Dixit.
Later, Sonia and Rahul spent some time at a mosque built by the late Islamic scholar, Ali Mia, about 7km from the city. They left around 3pm.
Asked if the Congress was trying to polarise voters by meeting Muslim clerics, Sonia retorted: “We are not in the habit or game of polarising the elections. It (the visit to the mosque and the meeting with clerics) has been a tradition followed since the days of Feroze Gandhi.”
The reply was also an answer to the BJP that criticised Sonia over her purported appeal to the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid for help to prevent a division of the secular vote.
BJP leaders Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Prakash Javadekar had accused Sonia of indulging in communal politics and violating the model code of conduct.
Told of the BJP’s allegations, Sonia said: “It is absolutely a joke. I can’t say more than that.”
The BJP has fielded Supreme Court lawyer Ajay Aggarwal, less known here than in Delhi, against Sonia after weeks of speculation whether Uma Bharti would challenge the Congress president. The Samajwadi Party has not fielded any candidate from the seat. Rae Bareli votes on April 30.