The handover at Rae Bareli

Few public figures in India have faced relentless and unfair attacks as Sonia has — starting with her place of birth, the partner she chose, her accent, her skin colour, her part-time job, her clothes, her children. Yet, Sonia presided over a political system (2004-2014) that undoubtedly was the most just and invested heavily in equity and empowerment.
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Rae Bareli, May 17

Momentous occasions usually skim over me like the flat stone in a game of ducks and drakes.

Exhibit One: When I got married, I forgot to change into the shirt I had bought with my savings from the Debonair shop on the Grand Arcade in Calcutta and tied the knot (actually a crimson garland that is used to break fasts unto death) in what I was wearing overnight.

Exhibit 2: At the 75th anniversary of the Anandabazar Patrika in 1997, when Prime Minister I.K. Gujral signalled fresh general election, I was still marvelling at then editor, Aveek Sarkar’s suggestion that it was ABP that taught CPM how to spell Harkishen Singh Surjeet in Bangla. The thread was broken by the rushing feet of agency reporters scrambling to call in from landlines the news alert at a time mobile phones were a luxury. I was blissfully unaware that the Prime Minister had just then announced the biggest announcement of the day.

The old habit almost repeated itself in Rae Bareli on Friday — the penultimate day of campaigning here — when Sonia Gandhi said something that hardnosed political reporters would not pay much attention to because the generational change in the Congress had already taken place years ago.

I was at the rear of the audience on the ITI grounds in Rae Bareli, where the Jan Sabha attended by Akhilesh Yadav, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi was winding down with Rahul’s blistering speech.

Then Sonia took the podium and started speaking. I had already worked my way forward, threading through the multitude so that I could catch a closer glimpse of the dais. Then I paused.

“I entrust Rahul to Rae Bareli,” Sonia told the audience, most of them made up of those who suffer in silence as 21 Indians hold as much wealth as the 70 crores.

I am not sure whether the Hindi word “saump” translates better as “entrust”, “cede”, “hand over” or “dedicate”.  

The handover marked a milestone in an extraordinary journey in public life in the world. Having represented Rae Bareli — an unrivalled name for a century as far as political recall is concerned (my mother gasped when I told her this evening where I was when she made the weekly call to check on me) — for decades, Sonia was saying farewell in the briefest manner possible but with unmatched elegance.

This note is not for any news columns. My quota for the month is over and I came to Rae Bareli on my own and not as a journalist, careful not to tread on any oversensitive toes.

Now comes the occasion — personally momentous but not so under any other yardstick— that sailed past me. Harshita Kalyan, among the journalists I now respect the most and my former colleague, called me and asked me if I recall a coincidence. I did not.

Harshita reminded me that I had covered the very first campaign rally of Sonia in Calcutta in 1998 on the great Brigade Grounds, where Indira Gandhi and Bangabandhu Mujib Ur Rahman held a gigantic rally after the birth of Bangladesh when India took on Nixon and did not blink when he sent the Seventh Fleet.

I think it was Sonia’s third or fourth meeting after the campaign debut in Sriperumbudur where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was assigned by deputy editor Deepayan Chatterjee to cover Sonia’s speech. I don’t think I did a memorable job, focusing more on how the previous speakers tortured the audience until Sonia arrived. I remember vaguely Harshita, who would speak her mind then as now, asking me why I wasted precious space on the others while the focus should have been on Sonia.

In hindsight, I think I was influenced — if not blinded — by the anti-Congressism sweeping Indian newsrooms, especially English, and a Khan Market variety of wordplay that couched the unkindest and most condescending labels and sobriquets in words that I found difficult to decipher without a dictionary. “Dowager” was a particularly patronising term where as “So near, yet so far” was done to death whenever photographs of Sonia appeared in newspapers. It was as if newsrooms could not wait for Sonia to enter politics — so that they can criticise her for doing so.

I suppose that is the done thing in a democracy: no quarters asked and none given. But I did not find the same sniggers and the same scrutiny being applied to Narendra Modi.

In fact, few public figures in India have faced relentless and unfair attacks as Sonia has — starting with her place of birth, the partner she chose, her accent, her skin colour, her part-time job, her clothes, her children…. Does any person indulging in such regressive behaviour have a place in a modern society? In India, they have a perch in high places.

Then in 2004, she showed how out of touch most of the editors were with what was happening in the country. “India Shining” was everywhere — when the Indian cricket team beat Pakistan in Pakistan in a one-day match it was “India Shining”. Perhaps, that was symptomatic: a bunch of highest paid players owned by a private club were being toasted as the symbols of India’s prosperity! Was it any different from the pride of India being equated with the gains of Ambani and Adani (till the tempo van hit the road)? But Sonia literally led the Congress by foot and put together an implausible coalition — a testimony to her political sagacity and accommodative nature.

The greatest — and hard to contrive — gift of Sonia was her ability to bring out the best in others. I remember a story (I don’t know if it is true but it is such that I want it to be true) in which a communist veteran tells a profusely perspiring Sonia at his modest flat in Delhi summer that the only AC there was in his bedroom. You are like my daughter. Will you mind if I invite you there so that you can be more comfortable while we talk, the veteran asked Sonia. Sonia apparently laughed and readily moved to the bedroom. Only those who respect each other can make such an offer and accept it.

I am sure you did not miss the point here that the greatness of the gesture lies more with the communist veteran than with Sonia. I never tire of telling this story, perhaps because somewhere deep down I give the credit to Sonia also for making him respect and trust her judgement.

Sonia again stunned the know-it-all pundits by declining to be Prime Minister. All these are well-known. I mentioned it here only because the best-ever edition of The Telegraph was brought out by Deepayan Chatterjee when Sonia gave up the post. That edition remains by all-time favourite although I suspect Harshita will choose the 2004 verdict edition with the Power of Finger headline that showed our former colleague Nupur’s inked finger. These are now a days worth losing your job for.

Sonia presided over a political system that undoubtedly was the most just and invested heavily in equity and empowerment. I do not know of any dispensation that piloted so many projects in such a short time (of course with the prodding of the Left) that empowered so many people.

By then, the India Shining armchair specialists were back, sniping and griping that the national wealth was being frittered away on the wretched and the damned. What about “development”, they groaned, unwittingly or otherwise making it the most treacherous word in Indian politics that helped Modi legitimise his run for national power.

At Rae Bareli this afternoon, as I was pushing to maintain my balance amid the heaving crowd, I heard Sonia say “Fear not”. She also underscored the need to respect others, protect the helpless and fight whoever it may be for the rights of the people — isn’t this what journalism also claims to aspire to, however hollow and laughable it may sound in many a newsroom?

It also struck me that countless mothers have little option but to entrust their children to God. In an extraordinary and reciprocal play, Sonia has the fortune of entrusting her son with Janata Janardan, a phrase that has lost is meaning over the years and the butt of ridicule in cynical newsrooms. 

Equally, Rae Bareli could not have asked for a better choice to call as its own and protect as its own. (Those making a face about dynasty and fief and other phrases but have a problem with inheritance tax, please remember: Sonia did not bequeath Rae Bareli to Rahul. It is not Sonia’s to do so. She has done it the other way round. Rahul will have to earn Rae Bareli as his guardian.)

I have no access to a newsroom now but I could not resist the temptation to wonder what would have been the headline had I led a team in producing a paper. Without hesitation, it would have been: GRACE.

(The author is a senior journalist; this is from his social media post)



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