| Jayalalithaa and Sonia at the Congress chief’s residence on April 15, 1999. Jayalalitha had met Sonia to discuss the formation of an alternative coalition after pulling down the Vajpyee government by withdrawing her party’s support to it. (AFP)
New Delhi, Aug. 28: The taste of patori chingri, bhetki machh, lemon fish and dam aloo was still fresh in her mouth when Sonia Gandhi looked at the television and stiffened. On the screen was Jayalalithaa spewing venom on her, questioning how someone with foreign origins could become India’s Prime Minister.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister’s outburst again demolished Sonia’s bid to emerge as a focal point of anti-NDA parties.
Last night, the Congress chief was the star at a dinner that CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee had hosted to thrash out Opposition unity. Although Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Pawar were absent, Sonia was happy. A feeler from Mulayam had conveyed to her that the Samajwadi Party no longer needed Jyoti Basu, Harkishen Singh Surjeet or Chatterjee to get close to Sonia. “We can do direct business with you,” a top Samajwadi leader told her.
Sonia was looking forward to hilsa and koi fish and had even conveyed to Chatterjee that the prospect of eating her favourite dishes had motivated her to attend the unity meet. Chatterjee had regretted that hilsa was in short supply but Sonia said patori would do. Prawns in hot garlic sauce was her favourite dish.
Sonia usually avoids eating out. She prefers to eat at home with son Rahul, frequent visitors Priyanka, Robert and grandchildren Rehan and Mira. But this time, she had made an exception, Sonia said, picking up two pieces of patori.
Today, however, Jayalalithaa’s harsh words dismayed her. Reticent by nature, the leader of the Opposition went into a shell, declining to chair a meeting that took stock of the situation arising out of the ADMK chief’s outburst. While Sonia was hurt and disappointed, Congressmen were angry
Congress leaders present in afternoon meeting consulted senior leaders Arjun singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh before taking an aggressive anti-Jaya stand.
Party spokesman Jaipal Reddy questioned the timing of Jayalalithaa’s tirade, wondering why the foreign origins issue had not come up when the ADMK leader offered to support a Sonia-led government in 1999.
Reddy pointed out that the Vajpayee regime was “destabilised” at the behest of Jayalalitha, who camped in Delhi for several days in April-May 1999.
Refuting Jayalalithaa’s claim that she had never favoured a Sonia-led government, Reddysaid she had even sent a letter to the then President, K.R. Narayanan, confirming her support. He added he would give the evidence at an “appropriate time” to nail Jayalalithaa’s lie.
According to senior Congress leaders, Jayalalithaa’s outburst is a sign of her nervousness following the merger of the Tamil Maanila Congress into the parent party. Sonia visited Madurai on August 14 and made a public statement that the Congress “would regain” its past glory in Tamil Nadu, where it was the ruling party once.
The ADMK chief was also upset over the Congress' volte-face on the poll reforms Ordinance. Like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jayalalithaa is credited with the view that the issue of corruption should be judged in “peoples' court”.
Some Congress leaders saw a “Sharad Pawar stamp” in the developments. According to this school of thought, Pawar and Jayalalithaa are worried over the prospects of Sonia becoming Prime Minister after the next round of general elections.