Srinagar, Sept. 19: Sonia Gandhi wore a full-length bulletproof jacket weighing six kilos, she stood behind a square glass curtain of impenetrability, all her supporters had been bussed in but still had to pass through metal detectors and frisked before entering the Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium cocooned inside concentric rings of security.
Still, she was the only national leader to campaign in the current elections. The fact was not lost on the crowd of about a thousand, many of whom had their faces covered to escape being marked for punishment — the women behind black veils and the men behind any piece of cloth, one even using an American flag.
Their political identity was visible only in the baseball caps of the Congress’ three colours: green, white and orange.
Sonia’s aide Ambika Soni made sure the message was driven home. “No top BJP leader dared visit Kashmir and address a poll meeting. It is only Soniaji who, despite the refusal of the government, came here to meet you,” she said to the crowd. Some in the gathering had waited a couple of hours for her to arrive.
They wanted to see a member of India’s most famous political dynasty. But it’s more than that that binds Sonia Gandhi to Kashmir: family history and personal circumstances. “I feel your pain,” she said.
Although she spoke from behind bulletproof glass and her visage was barely visible, the words, coming from someone who has been witness to two violent deaths in the family, were familiar to Kashmiris.
She recalled how she had visited Kashmir with Rajiv along with their children. “Our elders belonged to Kashmir. Indiraji felt a strong bond for this place.”
A close aide said she had overruled security objections to visit Srinagar and had the full support of daughter Priyanka and son Rahul. Most of her past visits took place in the seventies and early eighties when the Indira family spent their holidays in the Valley. After Indira’s assassination, she came here once with Rajiv in 1987. “My family still celebrates all the Kashmir festivals,” she said.
“She is trying to cash in on the age-old attachment of the Nehru family to Kashmir,” Mohammad Akbar, a 50-year-old man who had come from Uri, said.
“I remember those days when I used to come with Indira, Rajiv and my children to Kashmir. But today, there is a difference as wide as from the ground to the sky.”
At the end of the 30-minute speech, the supporters rushed to board the buses that would take them back home. And Sonia drove off in the bullet-proof white Ambassador to take to the skies, away from Srinagar.