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At Madam’s side, seen but not heard

Kishori Lal Sharma (centre) at a havan on April 2 before Sonia Gandhi filed her nomination in Rae Bareli. Picture by Naeem Ansari

The cellphone number mentioned in Sonia Gandhi’s poll affidavit keeps ringing for a while before someone answers the call.

“Hello?” says a tired voice — it’s not the one that India has become familiar with over the past decade and a half. There’s a man at the other end.

“This is Kishori Lal Sharma, Sonia Gandhi’s local representative in Rae Bareli,” he says, sounding fatigued but ever so polite.

It’s a name familiar to almost everybody in Rae Bareli and Amethi, though not to many people elsewhere.

Sharma is the self-effacing, stocky man in white full-sleeved shirt and blue trousers you may have spotted — but not really noticed — in TV images of Sonia’s and Rahul Gandhi’s campaigns in their constituencies.

At a time the Congress is teeming with people eager to advertise their real or imagined proximity to one of the world’s most powerful women, Sharma actually works closely with Sonia on one of her key assignments but hardly speaks about it.

The Congress full-timer, now in his late 50s, is ever present in Sonia’s and Rahul’s convoys in Rae Bareli and Amethi. His face pops up from the crowd as anxious constituents press stacks of applications on their MPs seeking their help on some matter or the other.

“All the letters from local people are placed in Sharmaji’s hands before they find their way to the MP’s table,” a Congress worker in Rae Bareli said.

But for all the energy and commitment with which he immerses himself in his work, the Ludhiana native — a Gandhi family retainer for three decades now — is rather shy and hardly opens his mouth before the cameras during the campaigns.

With the elections approaching, he has a right to sound tired but he stresses that he enjoys his work.

“The work is sometimes exacting but never boring as this offers me the chance to understand the people’s problems,” he says.

“I consider myself lucky to be able to serve the Gandhis and, through them, the people of this country.”

So, why is his phone number mentioned on Sonia’s affidavit just below her New Delhi address? After all, candidates don’t need to — and hardly ever do — cite their phone numbers or those of their representatives on their affidavits.

You can almost imagine him break into a smile at the other end of the line. “My phone number being listed on Sonia Gandhi’s affidavit is a rare honour for me.” Sharma sees it as a token of her faith in him.

Not ‘personal’

Sharma insists that his association with the Gandhis is strictly political and not personal. Sonia has never visited his home in Ludhiana — where he has a wife and two sons — nor has there been any need to, one of Sharma’s aides said.

Sharma began his innings as a Gandhi representative in 1984, a year after he was made a Youth Congress coordinator in Sultanpur district. He had just finished college in Punjab, where he had been attracted to student politics, and had made up his mind to work for the Congress the rest of his life.

Having been born into a wealthy farmer’s family in Ludhiana, he didn’t need a job. “I have never taken a paisa for serving the Gandhis,” he says.

Sharma met Sonia the first time in 1984 when she accompanied husband Rajiv Gandhi to his constituency, Amethi. But he came into direct contact with her, as her political representative, only in 1999 when Sonia contested from Amethi.

When she shifted to Rae Bareli in 2004, leaving Amethi for son Rahul, Sharma began looking after both seats. “I have one office in Delhi and another in Rae Bareli, from where I take care of the needs of the people of these two constituencies. Whenever necessary, I go to 10 Janpath to meet Sonia but this is not too frequent,” Sharma said.

“Officially, my home is Ludhiana, 300km from Delhi, but I spend most of my time in Amethi and Rae Bareli.”

Nowadays he has to keep visiting Bihar from time to time as well. Sharma has been appointed secretary to the Bihar Congress and made “co-in-charge” of the state’s affairs with Satyavrat Chaturvedi, the interim minder. Chaturvedi is filling in for general secretary C.P. Joshi, who is contesting the polls.

True to style, Sharma has been keeping a low profile in Bihar and describes himself as a “foot soldier”. As for Amethi and Rae Bareli, he has every detail about the campaigns at his fingertips.

Asked why Priyanka Gandhi had not turned up in Rae Bareli on April 2 when her mother filed her nomination, he says: “She was indisposed.”

Priyanka, he adds, will start campaigning in Rae Bareli on April 15. Sonia will be able to address just a couple of rallies here, though, because she has to electioneer across the country.

Rae Bareli votes on April 30