Looking back to 1998 when Sonia Gandhi, the reluctant politician, visited Maharashtra and won

In 1998 even party stalwarts underestimated her. But she won over Maharashtra with her humility, dignity and tact, writes Sujata Anandan

Looking back to 1998 when Sonia Gandhi, the reluctant politician, visited Maharashtra and won

Sujata Anandan

Sharad Pawar could not believe his eyes. As he stood on the dais an hour before the rally at Nandurbar in North Maharashtra, he could see a sea of tribals scurrying to the ground, wanting to be in time to catch “Sonabai, Indiranchi soonbai".

Sonabai is a very popular name in Maharashtra and Soonbai or ‘Soon’ is daughter-in-law in Marathi (bai being a respectful appellation for women in Maharashtra).

Sonia Gandhi has always been Indirabaichi Soonbai to Maharashtra across its regions – as was evident from the scenes wherever she went in the state, that year – 1998. The crowds were huge - and spontaneous- not requiring much motivation to gather on the rally grounds.

Such was her draw that BJP leader LK Advani decided to cancel his own rally in Nagpur’s Kasturchand Park for fear of faring poorly in comparison. Even Bal Thackeray had to pull all stops to pack Shivaji Park for his own closing rally in Mumbai to match Sonia Gandhi's, where people were spilling out of the venue onto the surrounding streets, grinding traffic to a halt for miles and hours.

The crowds converted into votes too. That year Congress won 39 out of the 48 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra and was able to win for its Dalit ally – the Republican Party-- three seats from the unreserved category - a feat never accomplished before. Usually, it is easier to persuade Dalits to vote for upper castes in the general unreserved seats than the other way round. But this was the only time it ever happened. That it happened in 1998 is credited to the combination of Sharad Pawar’s persuasive skills and Sonia Gandhi's sheer charisma.

Pawar would later say, "When the Nehru-Gandhis lead, other Congress leaders do not have to work as hard to win any election. "Because then we begin with a base of 20-21 per cent of the Dalit-Muslim vote, which is personally loyal to them. We then have to work for only another 20-25 per cent to turn the election. That is what we were missing when there was no Nehru-Gandhi in the fray."

Pawar should also have added Adivasis to those loyal voters of the Nehru-Gandhis. At Sonia's national debut that day they just couldn't stop coming to see her. They were still coming in when her helicopter took off after a brief 20-minute address to the packed ground. Overwhelmed by the response, she had her chopper fly low over the grounds, circling it thrice and waving to the crowds, who ecstatically waved back, before finally taking off for the nearest airport. No wonder, she chose Nandurbar to personally hand out India's first Aadhaar card to an Adivasi woman.

Now, Sharad Pawar, who had thought Sonia's arrival on the political scene was merely tokenism, sat in the Congress field office, reassessing his previous estimates. Admittedly, Sonia Gandhi had not spoken extempore like him, reading out from a written speech instead. She also got stuck on the word ‘adarsh' and pronounced Shivaji as Shiv-e-ji (which was corrected by the time she got to Shivaji Park in Mumbai). Yet the sympathy for her was palpable.

One person on the ground was overheard remarking, “She is speaking in a language that is alien to her. You try speaking English and see how you fare!”

Looking back to 1998 when Sonia Gandhi, the reluctant politician, visited Maharashtra and won

With that kind of connect and crowds, Pawar (who expected to be faced with an empty maidan) knew it was time to reorient the election campaign with as much of ‘Sonabai, Indiranchi Soonbai’ as possible’ - and Sonia did not let him down even once, either in terms of her crowd-pulling capacity or vote generating skills.

The next step was to introduce her socially in Maharashtra, which Pawar and the then Mumbai Congress president - Murli Deora, did with a dinner at Nashik and a lunch at Mumbai. At the Maharashtra Congress executive meet, that preceded the dinner, Sonia publicly gave full credit to Pawar for sweeping Maharashtra at the Lok Sabha elections.

At the dinner, a painfully shy Sonia looked as though she wanted to disappear behind the furniture every time a stranger, particularly a reporter, spoke to her or asked her a question. Nevertheless, she charmed and disarmed even her unreasonable critics with the very same shy modesty.

When asked to comment on her Congress presidency, she said, “I have done nothing. There are many stalwarts before me who made the party what it is today and there are still others here,” gesturing around the room at the Congressmen gathered, “from whom I have a lot to learn. I cannot do anything without them.”

She was somewhat less shy and more forthcoming at Deora’s luncheon, chatting away comfortably with the city's leading entrepreneurs, including Rahul Bajaj, who later expressed being charmed by her frankness and self-effacing modesty. This time she was confident enough to fend off all questions from reporters, managing to not offend the disappointed journalists.

Her confidence grew each time she returned to Maharashtra and once she was even bold enough to defy her security and ride on the footboard of her car, shaking hands with all gathered on the roadside to watch her cavalcade pass.

She was a veteran by the time of the 2004 elections. That was the year Narendra Modi, a mere Chief Minister at the time, had begun calling her and Rahul Gandhi nasty names that soon became his trademark abuse for other women politicians, including the non-political wives of some male politicians.

Sonia Gandhi was only human and she flinched as a reporter acquainted her with the uncouth remarks Modi had made about her. But she bounced back with lightning speed to say, “Oh, I don't care! Let them abuse me as much as they like. The more they abuse me, the more the common people shower their love upon me.”

She was right. She won that election bringing her party to power. Have you heard Modi abuse her or call her nasty names ever since?

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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