If there is a better explanation for Congress president Sonia Gandhi's sudden change of heart and invite into her 10, Janpath home the journalists who had pounded the pavements outside so long, one would love to hear it. But one suspects there is no other impelling reason for the Leader of the Opposition to mingle with the media than one, the election around the corner, and two, her brains trust's (an oxymoron to beat all) conviction that she needs to get across to the media and through them to the people.
One suspects this won't be the last of her 'mass contact' programme; having tested the ground, and having seen her ability to handle the verbal volleys with greater panache than the Indian team did with the leather ones in Sydney the next day, she is certain to move beyond the safe confines of her home. Good luck to her endeavour.
The nation may or may not be ready for a foreign-born prime minister, we will know that in a few months, but it certainly can never be ready for a Garbo-esque chief executive. Elections are not fought from boardrooms, you need to get down into the sandpit and wrestle. And there's no avoiding the mud that sticks. To twist a quote around, if you can't get yourself dirty, get out of the mud bath.
Gandhi's public exposition, at least somewhat had to with the court's exoneration of her late husband, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the Bofors case. It was propitious for her and the Congress party that this came about on the eve of the election. Just look at the irony here: one of the men itching to play Syndicate to the new Goongi Gudiya is a certain politician who led the highly shrill campaign against Rajiv Gandhi; another who has agreed to hold Sonia Gandhi's hand is a gentleman whose party had dubious links with the Tamil Tigers, suspected of engineering Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in May 1991. Faced with this, Kalyan Singh's return to the Bharatiya Janata Party, or Jayalalithaa's own tieup with the latter seem perfectly natural.
Digression aside, one cannot help feeling envious of the New Delhi breed of journalists who not only were allowed into the hallowed portals of 10, Janpath but also got to ask the inscrutable Madame G freewheeling questions. One cannot but wish one were a participant.
For there are questions I would love to hear Sonia Gandhi answer. There are many things to be commended in the American election system; there are also things that are so hot. Among the former I would rate the televised presidential debates, where the entire nation gets to rate their chief executive in waiting. Since we in India don't get anywhere close to it, here are a set of my own questions for Sonia Gandhi:
1. What is your vision for India? How is it different from Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's vision? What are the areas your government -- if you were to form one -- will be different from the present administration? And how? I think the people of India, who you expect to vote you in office, deserve to know your worldview. Loudly, and clearly.
2. What will be your government's stand on economic liberalization? Will you continue with the current pace of reforms, slow down, or accelerate? What are the areas of difference your government will bring in vis a vis the economy? You have said the India Shining campaign is false, and that there are parts of India that don't shine. How will you rectify that? What will be your strategy to create a resurgent India?
3. Do you have a solution in mind for the Ayodhya dispute, in creation of which your late husband's government had a hand? What solution would your government push for? Will you rebuild the Babri Masjid? Or will you allow the Ram temple to come up, through negotiations? If you take the negotiations route, who will you negotiate with?
4. What is your take on the peace moves with Pakistan? Will you continue the path covered so far between the two governments? Or will you pull back, and seek ironclad, verifiable guarantees from the Musharraf government about stopping infiltration etc before proceeding further? What kind of relationship will your government have with Pakistan?
5. On Kashmir, what will be your government's take? Will you withdraw the army from the state? Will your government continue the talks initiated with the Hurriyat Conference? Is your government for increased autonomy to the state? What is your view on converting the Line of Control in Kashmir to the International Boundary Line? Do you have a lasting peace formula for the state?
6. How will your government's approach to the United States be different from Vajpayee's? Will the current pace of cooperation between the two governments in various spheres be continued? Or will you scale back?
7. Will your government continue the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, initiated to recognize the Diaspora's contribution to India? Or do you think this, and initiatives like Dual Citizenship, are a waste of time?
8. What will be your government's approach to the Indian Institute of Managements, the Indian Institutes of Technology etc? The present government has tried to muscle in on their powers, will you restore them to their earlier position? What about the syllabus row, over its apparent Hinduization? Will you continue this measure?
9. There has been a controversy generated over foreign-borns occupying political office in this country. The Constitution does not explicitly bar them from seeking even the highest office -- what is your party's stand on this? Can a foreign-born in your own country of birth become prime minister? Why do you think it should be any different in India?
10. Your '272 MPs' who let you down in 1999, after the 13-month-old Vajpayee government was defeated in the Lok Sabha by just one vote. What were your feelings then?
11. You have absolutely no political experience. Governing India at the best of times is a challenge. If voted to power, obviously you will be heading a coalition government, to keep together which calls for a special set of skills. What gives you the confidence that you are up to the job?
12. Finally, your Hindi. While you have made commendable effort to speak it like a native, your accent is a giveaway. Can you imagine yourself addressing the nation in that clipped accent on August 15 from the Red Fort? Are you comfortable with the thought?
There's hardly any chance of Mme Gandhi reading this, leave alone replying to my questions. However, if she feels up to it, she can always write to me at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org