| Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Rahul Gandhi
April 20: An ailing Sonia Gandhi skipped a mammoth Congress rally in Mumbai today, and Sharad Pawar added to the speculation by staying away despite being billed to address it.
Rahul Gandhi eventually filled in for his mother, saying she was “unwell”, but the last-minute change of plans meant he arrived three-and-a-half hours late for what was scheduled as a 3pm rally.
Sonia had abruptly called off her meetings in Nandurbar, Dhule and Mumbai around noon, fuelling a buzz about her health. Senior party leaders ignored questions but sources unofficially said she had developed minor complaints because of her hectic election tours.
The speculation intensified when daughter Priyanka too cancelled her scheduled tour of Sonia’s constituency, Rae Bareli, tomorrow without any reason being cited.
However, Kishori Lal Sharma, Sonia’s local representative in Rae Bareli, later said Priyanka had postponed her visit by just a day, which suggests the Congress president’s ailment is indeed minor.
Rahul too is carrying on with his scheduled tours though he had to cancel his Rae Bareli meeting today to be able to stand in for his mother in Mumbai. Ghulam Nabi Azad and Raj Babbar were sent to the two other meetings in Maharashtra as Sonia’s replacement.
Sources said Sonia would resume her programmes sooner than later.
“The Congress president was keen to address this rally but she felt unwell and could not come,” Rahul later told the capacity audience of 2.5 lakh at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority ground at the Bandra Kurla Complex.
“She asked me to go instead and I was happy to come to Mumbai. My apologies for the delay.”
Pawar’s surprise absence from the rally, held to promote the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party candidates in Mumbai, also created a flutter.
The outgoing Union minister had campaigned in Raigad for party candidate Sunil Tatkare till 1pm, but he then went off the radar. Even party sources could not explain where their leader had disappeared.
Eventually, Nationalist Congress Party minister Jayant Patil told the Mumbai rally that Pawar had been keen to attend it but could not reach Mumbai because of a “technical problem with his helicopter”.
In an interview a few months ago, Pawar had appeared to raise questions when asked whether Rahul had proved his ability to govern as Prime Minister.
“One has to prove his mettle in administration. I would have been happy if he had joined the Manmohan Singh government, but it’s his personal decision,” the veteran had said.
“I cannot say anything about that. I would have preferred it if he would have joined the government; it would have been beneficial for him. I have no knowledge whether he has proved himself.”
Tomorrow, Narendra Modi is scheduled to address a rally with BJP and Shiv Sena candidates at the same venue.
Rahul today told the gathering that if re-elected, the UPA would pass the women’s reservation bill as “the first thing, not the second thing”.
He promised 2,000 all-women police stations and 25 per cent reservation for women in the police.