The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Backroom Brains
- The invisible hands that run the Congress’s daily affairs
Sonia Gandhi with Archana Dalmia

You may not have heard of her, but she’s your gateway to Sonia Gandhi. The aam aadmi — whether a disabled youth or a distressed woman, a petty trader from Diu or a Kerala grassroots worker — can have the Congress president’s ear only if Archana Dalmia decides he should.

But what about the times when Sonia herself wants to come to the aam aadmi, her biggest constituency' Then it’s the moustache-twirling ex-soldier she must turn to.

Major Dalbir Singh maps out her cross-country poll campaigns, filling her in on valuable titbits: the expected turnout, the proportion of males to females and of the well-to-do to hoi polloi, even details like the weather.

Archana and Dalbir aren’t the only backroom officials wielding invisible clout in the Congress.

Wasim Ahmed, Mabel Rebello and Manish Tewari are some of the rest, helping Manmohan Singh and Sonia square up to delicate issues relating to Muslims, Christians and economic reforms, ensuring there are no bloopers or blushes.

With varying family backgrounds and political moorings, different views, interests and styles, they elude a generic label.

(Top) Dalbir Singh and Wasim Ahmed

Although sought after by party stalwarts, central ministers and top bureaucrats, they are often media shy and would wince at the tag “networker”. Here’s a snapshot of some of the Congress’s unseen movers and shakers.

Sicilian secrecy

One of the media’s rare glimpses of Archana Dalmia came when she was by Sonia’s side the day the Congress president quit her Lok Sabha seat amid the office-of-profit controversy.

Yet Archana’s chamber, tucked away in the backyard of the Congress headquarters, draws more party workers on any weekday than would a general secretary’s during ticket distribution. She is the party’s only national secretary who reports directly to Sonia.

The daughter of Hindi novelist Dineshnandini Dalmia and wife of late industrialist Ramakrishna Dalmia stepped into politics by chance.

“I saw Rajivji (Rajiv Gandhi) at the Ashoka hotel when I was still in college. I went up to him and said, ‘I want to work with you’. I was fascinated by Rajivji,” she recalls. She helped set up the Congress’s grievances cell, which she continues to head, when Rajiv was leader of the Opposition in 1989.

When Sonia took over, “I began to understand what she wanted — I didn’t know Rajivji well enough”, Archana says.

“I keep a low profile and only concern myself with the aam aadmi,” who could be anybody: a biscuit manufacturer looking to place the business’s pre-budget demands before Sonia or someone seeking medical help or a job. “I myself handle job-seekers’ requests.”

She seems to enjoy the complete trust of “Madam”. Archana’s secret, party insiders say, is that she’s absolutely tight-lipped about her Sonia connection, meets other senior leaders rarely if ever, and only works with a minor functionary, Manish Chatharth, who’s part of her cell.

The Gandhis insist on unswerving loyalty and Sicilian secrecy from friends and associates. Those who violate the unspoken rule fall from grace in no time.

Every-minute man

(Top) Manish Tewari and Mabel Rebello

If Dalbir Singh’s moustache reminds you of Hercule Poirot, so should his passion for order and method and meticulous attention to detail.

He puts down “Madam’s needs” in a notebook so she’s never without packed food on an aircraft or lacks a shawl in chilly weather.

And whenever Sonia uses her chamber in the Congress headquarters, he adorns it with white flowers “which she loves”.

During such visits — events on the party’s calendar because they are so rare — she stays mostly in her own chamber. The only other office she visits is Dalbir’s, as a host of past party presidents and Prime Ministers used to do before her.

Dalbir, a veteran of the 1971 war, had no political background when, in 1987, he met Rajiv at a dinner hosted by then air chief S.K. Mehra and “spent 45 minutes with him”.

Two years later, Rajiv put him in charge of the Congress’s control room — the engine moving the various apparatus and adjuncts.

“I call it the minute-to-minute monitor but when I took charge, there were no flights to most parts of the country, no email, no cellphones and no computer. I worked through some 30 hot lines,” Dalbir recalls.

After Sonia took over, Dalbir and a former bureaucrat, R.D. Pradhan, reoriented the control room’s working to meet the “24x7 vertical and horizontal spread of information, so that if something big happened at 11.30 pm, the party could respond.”

Between handling four general and nearly 100 Assembly elections, he has seen to it that not one of the 143 meetings Sonia addressed was cancelled.

His moment of glory came when Sonia sent a note congratulating the control room for its “exemplary work” in the 2004 elections. But bragging is the last thing he would do. “It’s the easiest way to make enemies.”

Bridge builder

When Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Pranab Mukherjee decided that the Aligarh Muslim University was the most appropriate platform to reach out to the “thinking” Muslim, Wasim Ahmed did the liaising.

Yet, here is a man nurtured on the “anti-Congressism” of the Janata Dal school of politics, with V.P. Singh as his mentor.

But 1998 was the turning point. The Janata Dal teamed up with the BJP and Wasim wasn’t too sure about the “secular” regional outfits. So, when Sonia took over and the Congress signalled its willingness to do coalition politics, Wasim saw a way out of his dilemma.

Since then, he has been Sonia’s principal link with VP and the AMU circuit. “From 1998 onwards, V.P. Singh has been silent on Bofors. He never spoke against Sonia, Priyanka or Rahul and threw himself into pro-poor issues. That, I suppose, helped,” says Wasim.

VP tried to push his case for a cabinet berth but didn’t succeed.

Wasim is supposed to be close to Arjun Singh. Last year, he went with Arjun to Saudi Arabia and was “privileged to shake hands with King Abdullah and be the first to inform him that Manmohan would visit his country in 2007”.

Christian voice

When the Congress needs to take a position on Christian-related issues — the Muslim experts are a dime a dozen — it’s feisty Mabel Rebello it turns to.

The Mangalore-born Rajya Sabha MP from Jharkhand has made the tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh her area of work and is considered useful by the Congress for her contacts with the Church and the NGOs of central India and the Northeast.

Yet, Rebello never thought of fighting an election. “Rajiv Gandhi told me many times to contest. But I said no, because once you are in the fray, there are objections from hazaar people. You have to keep fighting your immediate adversaries.”

An instance of how she fights for the Christian cause came in the Rajya Sabha when a question was raised on the minorities and there were supplementaries only on Muslims. “I got up and told the Chair that minorities don’t come only from a single community. I don’t want anyone to pity us, but if the missionaries are attacked unjustifiably, I’m the first to raise the issue,” she says.

Reforms interpreter

Manish Tewari is the man Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram seek out from among the party’s second and third-rung leaders to articulate their reform policies to the rank and file without sounding defensive.

The suave Manish, whose father V.N. Tewari was close to Indira Gandhi and was killed by Sikh militants, sees himself as a product of the eighties’ “ideological climate” that put a premium on secularism and nationalism. A former Youth Congress president and NSUI general secretary, and now a Supreme Court lawyer, Manish is a Congress national secretary tasked with Gujarat affairs. “Our campaign will aim to demolish the myth that Modi is a development man,” he says.

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