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The card Sonia may play

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February 19, 2004 11:55 IST

How does the Congress (I) counter the Bharatiya Janata Party strategy of making 'Sonia Gandhi versus Atal Bihari Vajpayee' the theme of the coming general election? If my sources are correct, the party is planning to play the 'Renunciation Card.' In other words, at a suitably timed point during the campaign, Sonia Gandhi shall announce that she is removing herself as a candidate for the prime ministership of India!

Why should she do so? The answer is that she might not have any other choice.

The Congress (I) president¹s coterie dreams of coming back to power in Delhi on the strength of an absolute majority (something which last happened in 1984). Second on the list is the hope of forming a government headed by Sonia Gandhi. A distant third is the creation of a non-BJP ministry with just about anybody as prime minister. Quite frankly, the third one is the most realistic of the lot. Or, more accurately, it is the least unrealistic!

The first choice is utterly impossible. Let us go back to the general election of 1998, the one precipitated when the Congress (I), for the second time in less than two years, withdrew support from a United Front government. That was the first occasion when Sonia Gandhi came out to campaign for her party. She evidently believed that Sitaram Kesri, then president of the party, lacked any ability to draw votes. The result was that the party got a little over 140 seats in the Lok Sabha (just about what Narasimha Rao achieved in 1996).

Nevertheless, this proved enough for the Congress (I) to throw the aged Kesri into the dustbin. Sonia Gandhi became the president in name as well as in fact. The result, in the 1999 general election, astounded everyone as the Congress (I) went on to register its worst performance ever, losing almost 30 seats. The Indian electorate, one might conclude, was simply not prepared to entrust power to someone of foreign origin. (I am not debating the merits of the case, merely pointing out that the sentiment exists.)

The second desire -- a coalition led by Sonia Gandhi -- is looking increasingly remote; who is prepared to back Sonia Gandhi even in the unlikely event that some kind of an anti-BJP majority can be cobbled together in the next Lok Sabha? The Left Front -- which has to play a major part in the proposed coalition -- is utterly unenthusiastic; Somnath Chatterjee, leader of the CPI-M in the Lok Sabha, has proposed Dr Manmohan Singh instead. I never thought I would see the day when a Marxist proposed that name as the ideal prime minister, but that is what Sonia Gandhi has achieved!

There could be another reason why Sonia Gandhi will attempt a bid for the spotlight by announcing her decision to take sanyasa -- Bofors. I know the Delhi high court has announced that Rajiv Gandhi was innocent of wrongdoing, but will that truly be the last word on the subject? In Sweden, where the news of the scandal first burst, a man named Sten Lindstrom is preparing to break his silence. For the benefit of those who don¹t remember the fine details of the Bofors case, Lindstrom was the chief investigator at the Swedish end. Rumour has it that he is insisting that the investigation should now focus on just one aspect -- the friendship between the First Family of the Congress (I) and Ottavio Quattrocchi.

If this true, Sonia Gandhi certainly needs something to counter the effect of this explosion. And what could be better than a fine piece of theatre in the form of a 'renunciation'?

Congress strategists hope there will be another fallout from the announcement. Antagonism to the 'foreign born' Sonia Gandhi has brought several allies such as Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalithaa into the BJP camp. If she removes herself from the scene, would this not unleash hitherto concealed ambitions in the hearts of powerful regional chieftains? "It shall," one Congress insider predicts, "be a Deve Gowda-type situation in the 14th Lok Sabha!"

Well, we all recall how the Deve Gowda and I K Gujral regimes came to an end, don¹t we? And somehow I think the Indian voter is a bit too crafty to fall for the same trap again. Especially so when he suspects that there will be some fine print at the bottom of the 'renunciation' statement; something on the lines of Sonia Gandhi being willing to sacrifice her own feelings '³if the people so want'!

It is a truly crazy situation. The campaign has not yet been launched as I write, but the biggest weapon in the Congress (I) armoury is the threat to withdraw its leader!

T V R Shenoy