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Wednesday, January 24, 2001



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Making waves the wrong way

Rasheeda Bhagat

IF YOU can't beat them, join them, seems to be the resolution made by the Congress(I) President, Ms Sonia Gandhi. Hence, perhaps, her visit to the Kumbh Mela for a semi-snan at the sangam of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

Let it be made clear at the outset that nobody is objecting to her visit to the Kumbh Mela which, of course, was more a political than a religious statement. But as she herself said, seeking to justify her visit, she has done it in the past, with her mot her-in-law and her children, so why all the fuss.

The fuss, dear Soniaji, is not about your visit to the Kumbh Mela. If the Indian Express correspondent captured the details of her movement accurately, she sprinkled some gangajal on her head and was about to depart in a motor boat. But at the last momen t, she ``alighted from the wooden platform and entered the Ganga water''.

Standing for a while in the knee-deep water, she stopped short of taking a full dip in the holy waters and left the place. The exercise took all of 15 minutes.

The entire episode has a strong political colour. Even though she has not converted to Hinduism, she does go through many of its rituals and is often seen at temples, particularly if there is a crowd around. A Roman Catholic and a foreigner, she has to m ake a special effort to show India and its people that she respects the religion of the majority. This country and its people have been witness to Ms Gandhi being abused, most unfairly and in intemperate language, by the zealots of the Sangh Parivar beca use she is a Christian and a foreigner.

While that is to be condemned strongly, her appearance at the Kumbh is bound to raise eyebrows. If, for a moment, one can accept the argument being advanced that the Kumbh Mela is more a sociological than a religious event, nobody can deny Ms Gandhi her right to make an appearance at an event attended or watched by crores of Indians. She is only giving expression to her Indianness and this should not be construed as a religious statement.

This line of argument could have been swallowed had she stopped with a semi-dip. But what did she do after this exercise? She changed from her maroon saree to a beige one -- you have to hand it to her, she has excellent taste in clothes -- and, in the ne xt scene, was seen paying obeisance to the Sankaracharya of Dwarka, Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati.

Either her advisers are downright stupid or just naive. What kind of a statement does the Congress President hope to make by such antics on the eve of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh? The very person who has been screeching from various platforms about the BJP using the politics of religion to spread the poison of communalism, is now grabbing the Hindutva plank. But whatever she does, can Ms Gandhi ever hope to emerge a greater believer in Hinduism than the BJP leader, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

One thing is obvious. On the eve of elections in India's largest State, the Congress(I) leadership is desperate. According to available information, the BJP's vote-bank has indeed been eroded. But the bad news for the Congress(I) is that the BJP's loss i s likely to be the gain of regional parties such as Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Janata Party and Ms Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. Neither the Hindus nor the Muslims of UP seem to be in a mood to endorse a party that has shown no evidence that it is pulling itself together after its nationwide dismal performance at the last Lok Sabha elections.

That the smaller satraps within the Congress(I) are bankrupt in ideas can be seen in the gusto with which party leaders sought to justify Ms Gandhi's pilgrimage to Kumbh.

Participating in a discussion on Star News, the leader of the UP Congress Legislature Party, Mr Pramod Tiwari, was all excitement as he justified, even glorified, Ms Gandhi's visit to the Mela. Asked why she should have sought the blessings of the Sankar acharya at this moment in time, he said: ``Why not? What is wrong in it? The only people who are objecting to it are those in the BJP.''

The words which followed are very significant and need to be scrutinised. ``Unki to dukaan hi bandh ho gayi... is liye dar rahey hei.'' (Now the BJP will have to close its shop and that is why it is afraid).

Dukaan? Is getting the patronage of Indian voters akin to running a dukaan or a petty business? Sorry, not petty business but big business, because in this day and age of Indian politics, whether it be a panchayat chief, an MLA or an MP, getting a positi on of power, for most people, is a passport to enriching themselves first, their cronies next and their parties only later.

In a moment of triumph, or a weak moment, when the guard is down, out comes the truth. So if Mr Tiwari is to be taken seriously, and we are to believe that he was uttering the truth, one can conclude that the very purpose of Ms Gandhi's visit to the Kumb h tamasha -- what else does it mean to our politicians? -- was to do the spade work for setting up the Congress dukaan of dealing with voters in Uttar Pradesh.

Ms Gandhi would be well aware that the 20-odd per cent Muslims of UP have not yet forgiven the Congress government of the day for failing to save the Babri Masjid in the December of 1992. After having played the minority vote card for decades, and notici ng how miserably it was failing in conning Muslim voters in the last couple of elections, somebody or the other in the Gandhi coterie has, it seems, hit upon this brilliant idea of switching the con game from the Muslims to the Hindus.

But if Ms Gandhi's advisers or the so-called educated and self-styled elite of this country think it is easy to fool the masses, they will have to eat humble pie. The voter in a UP village or a Tamil Nadu hamlet might not be as educated or suave as the u rbanites, but make no mistake, he/she is absolutely politically savvy. Their vote is the ultimate weapon these people have and, over the years, they have learnt to use this weapon effectively.

If the Congress wants to regain its past glory, it will have to do much more than send its president to the Kumbh Mela. It will have to obliterate the shameful memory of the farce recently enacted in the name of presidential election within the party. Le ader after leader outdid himself/herself in attacking Jitendra Prasada for daring to contest against the high and mighty Soniaji. A broken heart and a squashed ego must have certainly contributed to his Prasada's early demise last week.

Ms Gandhi will also have to show once and for all whether she has the makings of a true leader. What ability has she shown till now to justify her filling the important and powerful post of Congress chief?

If she aspires to adorn the chair of the Prime Minister of India, Ms Gandhi will have to show the courage to deal with the terrorists in Kashmir, the compassion to wipe the tears of the destitute, the shrewdness to show the door to the schemers and sycop hants around her and, above all, the vision to take this nation and its people to the pinnacle of their real worth.

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