Sunday 23 October 2011

Sonia Gandhi...India's first lady

The Mystery Deepens, Chocolates Spied

By Paul Beckett

The mystery around Sonia Gandhi’s unexplained absence from India this summer is getting even more bizarre. The Congress party, as has been repeatedly noted, has said only that its President went for treatment abroad.

Now, barely one week after returning to New Delhi, Mrs. Gandhi was well enough to chair a meeting. This was not just any meeting, but a gathering of Congress’s Central Election Committee, which appears to have the unenviable task of wading through reams of candidates to select to run for seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Despite Mrs. Gandhi apparently not being well enough to appear in public, the Business Standard reported that she achieved almost the same level of candidate-selection productivity as the committee’s previous meeting held, in her absence, at the residence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Race Course Road meeting “cleared the first list of the names of 73 party candidates for the UP elections,” the article said. “While a total of 98 names were discussed at the meeting on Thursday, only about 70 were finally cleared.” Mrs. Gandhi, to hear her Congress lieutenants tell it, is not just on the mend but actually improved. After greeting the committee “attired in three-inch wedge heels and a bluish grey salwar suit,” the article said, one party functionary gushed that she looked “younger than usual” and was “more than usually cheerful.”

One might ask, looking across the political landscape, what she has to be cheerful about unless it is the prospect of Narendra Modi going for a weekend without food, but that is beside the point. In comparison, the normally outlandish Digvijay Singh verged on the morose when he noted only that “nobody could make out that she has undergone any operation.” But even he couldn’t refrain from slipping in an upbeat coda: “Touch wood, she was looking quite good!”

None of this is to belittle what Mrs. Gandhi underwent, whatever it was. We don’t know, because of the official silence. But how her absence – and her return – have been treated, especially by her Congress underlings, speaks volumes about the culture within the party. If you actually believed all these comments and quotes and had to guess where she had been, you’d think she’d spent a few weeks at Canyon Ranch and had brought back some nice gifts for her admirers. “She accepted our bouquet of flowers and greetings,” the unnamed functionary gushed. “We were delighted with the milk chocolates with nuts that she served us apart from the coffee.” What? He sounds like a schoolboy who has just met the Queen circa 1955.

On reading it, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher. Not that the two women have much in common politically. But during Mrs. Thatcher’s time, her reputation as the Alpha Male among her Cabinet was legendary. Next to her, grown men  — tough men with decades of experience in political combat — were said to go wobbly.

One of the most famous sketches on the British satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” shows the Iron Lady, as Mrs. T was known, taking her Cabinet out to dinner. “Would you like to order sir?” the waitress asks the prime minister. “Yes, I will have the steak,” she says. “How’d you like it?” the waitress asks “Oh, raw please,” Mrs. Thatcher responds. “And what about the vegetables?” the waitress asks. “Oh,” says Mrs. Thatcher. “They’ll have the same as me.”

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