"Without Sonia, the Congress is zero," declared a Congress leader when Sonia Gandhi resigned on May 17. "We all feel orphaned," they all said. The first element of Congress culture, therefore, remains -- a commitment to truth.
And then there is sacrifice, the readiness, as they keep saying to lay down their lives for their leader. Delhi Congressmen seized their geographical advantage. They were the first to arrive round and about Sonia Gandhi's residence -- on May 17 itself.
The Congress MLA, one Mukesh Sharma, described alternately as being close to the Chief Minister, Mrs Sheila Dikshit and Sajjan Kumar, declared that he was going on a fast unto death to persuade Sonia to take back her resignation. Contingents started arriving. Competitiveness was much in the air- who has been able to get to see her, how much time did she spend with whom... Resolutions followed resolutions.
Even the super-secularist Hindu was less than overwhelmed. "Not surprisingly, the current crisis is also being used to demonstrate loyalty to the leader -- important when elections are around the corner," it noted. "Since practically all state unit chiefs are Sonia appointees, the chorus of support and condemnation of the three CWC leaders for daring to question her legitimacy to rule the country follows the true Congress tradition..."
May 18: "Makeshift tents came up on both sides of Akbar Road to accommodate the striking activists," reported The Asian Age. "Agitated Congressmen, who tried to find out innovative ways to show their anguish, burnt effigies..." Once again the Delhi Congress Pradesh Committee was able to organise the biggest turnout, the paper said. "The MLAs, who offered to resign, were on a relay hunger strike. But the other Congressmen did not appreciate the concept of relay hunger strike.
'We do not believe in the relay thing. We are on a continuous indefinite strike,' said former Andhra PCC president V Hanumanta Rao..." "The surprise of the day, however, was the Delhi legislator, Mukesh Sharma," The Asian Age reported. "Mr Sharma was the first to go on hungerstrike on Monday. But on Tuesday he was missing, even the local Congressmen were surprised at his disappearance."
"One tried to set himself ablaze, dozens shed tears, including Arjun Singh, twenty lay down on the road, hundreds fell at her feet, one MLA refused to let go [of her feet], thousands promised more," reported The Indian Express. But as there had been no word from Sonia, the paper said, "youngsters decided to provide some action.
A bottle of kerosene oil in hand and tears in his eyes, a youth Congress worker screamed, 'I will immolate myself'. All eyes, cameras turned towards him, the cops rushed to save him from himself. Snatching away the bottle they firmly evicted him. While he was being taken away, former National Students Union of India president Alka Kapur announced -- to all who cared to hear -- that this was no empty threat."
"The another batch hit the road - literally," the Express account continued. "Twenty youth Congress workers lay down on the road covering themselves with party glory and Sonia posters. Apparently fired by all this, senior party workers devised their own ways. Every Congress worker, who could possibly resign, did..." The four chief ministers of Congress-ruled states topped the list of resigners.
The resignations conveyed one signal to those outside the party, and another one to those in it -- the two being encapsulated successively in two clauses of The Economic Times report that day: "The resignation spree, clearly designed to give an honorable route for Mrs Gandhi to come back as the party president, signalled the total isolation of the rebels...."
"And those who could not resign," said The Indian Express, "pitched tents - separate one for each frontal organisation - and sat on hunger-strike.... However, the odd one could be seen slipping away for some good old-fashioned lunch...."
The usual acrimony between netas and the wretched praja: "The leaders had started arriving around 2.30 p.m. to register their presence," reported The Pioneer. "The Working Committee meeting was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. They though it would be all over after a few rounds of slogan shouting... The meeting got delayed.... They found themselves drenched in sweat by now... Mineral water bottles were ordered. This infuriated the workers who had been brought in tempos.... After much noise, and NDMC water truck arrived."
Mukesh Sharma had disappeared. The contingent from Delhi was clearly dwindling. Roster-duty was decreed. MLAs accompanied by ministers will sit on relay-fast, the organizers announced. The relay had but begun, and confusion broke out about the timings that each batch had to observe.... But soon an even greater threat loomed.
"When the Andhra Pradesh Congress State unit erected a shamiana just outside the AICC headquarters in the forenoon," reported The Pioneer, "the DPCC and Youth Congress workers went into a tizzy. 'We have no tent here, no banner. How will Madam get to know that we are also here?,' some DPCC office-bearers were heard discussing.
And soon enough there sprang up a line of tents for works of the DPCC, YC, Sewa Dal, and umpteen other organisations...." The tents up, a new problem erupted: several of the leaders, the paper said, could not be traced in their respective tents. "Meanwhile, an enterprising soul went one step ahead and surreptitiously pinned a banner of the UP Congress, proclaiming 'Salman Khurshid zindabad', on one side of the tent set up by the AP Congress unit.
The shrewd move was exposed only when...." The Times of India too noticed the fast evaporating. "Even as eager hands reached out for the kulfis sold by a vendor," it reported on May 19, "a sharp reprimand was hurled through the sultry air: 'Don't eat in front of reporters.'
The hands were quickly withdrawn. City Congress leaders were of course not as 'indiscreet' as the activists....' "The 'fast' to start with was 'indefinite'. Later it was turned into a 'relay hunger strike'.... But there was confusion about how long it would be before the next group took over. Some said it was a six-hour shift. Others said it was for twelve hours...."
Even the participants were not uniformly impressed. "All this is dramabazi, everyone wants to impress madamji,' said a Youth Congress activist," reported The Times of India, "even as he himself posed for some television cameras."By the next day, the range, variety, quantity of delicacies had multiplied: thanks to the spirit of enterprise the party has done so much to stimulate.
"On the food front," The Indian Express reported on May 20, "Om Prakash and his golgappas were the first to arrive. Close on his heels was the bhelpuri man, the chana-masala mixer and the coconut man. They did brisk pre-lunch business, and the word obviously got around...." "Lunch was topped off with desert.
The choice was between the different varieties of kulfi or ice cream...." But "it wasn't as if the supporters were just eating and drinking. They were also cheering on the entertainment truck that drove up and down the road.... "There were serious projects too: "Meanwhile," reported The Times of India that day, "Indian Youth Congress president Manish Tiwari threatened to take 'direct action' against the rebels.
While refusing to say what he would do, Mr. Tiwari said: 'Just wait and see what happens when Mr Sangma reaches here on Thursday from the US. "Blame-slinging was in full-swing. The Pioneer quoted Delhi Congress leaders accusing their chief minister, Sheila Dikshit of "stunts to hog the limelight." The fast-unto death-or-disappearance of Mukesh Sharma was cited as one such stunt.
"The MLA's action was focused on garnering media spotlight," the paper quoted an MLA from outer Delhi saying. "His messengers were in the newspaper offices much before the scene had heated up..." Far from going through with his fast unto death, Sharma had not turned up even for the relay fast, his colleagues complained.
In fact, there had been a purpose to the relay fast, his colleagues complained. In fact, there had been a purpose to the relay fast itself, a Minister in the Delhi government told the paper: "The relay hunger strike had to be adopted to ensure the presence of at least six legislators at one time.
Otherwise there wouldn't be a soul present. "The dharna against the rebel troika turned into a carnival with music, crackers and plenty of food. Some sat on hunger strike to lend dignity while others danced to parodies of Hindi film songs. It seemed like a huge barat enjoying a picnic under the tree-lined avenue....", The Pioneer reported. There was action too.
"The 'street play' on Akbar Road continued unabated for the third day," The Pioneer reported, "with harried Congressmen zipping in and out in their airconditioned cars to convince their party president to rejoin...." One Manju Sachdeva was said to have attempted to burn herself to death. Prudently, it would seem.
"Manju Sachdeva took time to pour kerosene herself, waiting to catch the attention of other party workers and police personnel. So the moment she lit a match, there was chaos as a flood of saviours surrounded her..." She was rushed to the hospital, where she survived with "zero per cent burns"! Only the pallu of her sari had got singed a bit.
"Nonetheless," The Pioneer reporter observed, "the incident provided Congress agitators some inspiration. 'We must keep up the struggle,' they muttered even as they jostled with each other to grab tumblers of mineral water."Nor were Congressmen wanting in distant Bhopal. "Protest turns farcical," The Hindu's headline ran.
Five Congressmen gathered and declared that they would jump off a seven storeyed apartment building. The police, as well as the press had been alerted well in time. "Before they began their ascent, they were dutifully garlanded by fellow-Congressmen," The Hindustan Times recorded. Four of them were stopped by policemen.
"They did not offer even an iota of protest," The Hindu's report said. The fifth managed to reach the top floor with some Congressmen and policemen in tow. "His attempt to 'sacrifice' his life for the cause of his leader," The Hindu told its readers, "came to an end when he found the door leading up to the terrace locked.
He left after posing for the photographers. "But Bhopal had even more committed devotees. "By this time," The Hindu continued, "about a dozen Congress activists, including some women, had gathered near the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru at the Roshanara Square for committing 'self-immolation' with the passersby acting as ready audience.
After posing for the photographers, they started pouring on each other 'kerosene'. Immediately after water jets from two fire-tenders stationed nearby were aimed at them and within no time their tryst with fire and the summer heat was turned into a cold water treat.
An MMPCC(I) office bearer's initiative was particularly responsible for the promptness with which the water jets were activised. "The deed done and recorded on film for posterity," The Hindustan Times said, "the drenched protesters climbed down victoriously from the feet of India's first Prime Minister."
"Talking to The Hindustan Times members of the self-immolation squad... said they were all serious about their bid to end their lives but were prevented by the police." That paper added that "The police, in the interim, had almost disappeared from the scene having convinced themselves that no one really wanted to jump off the terrace." In Delhi the action was more energetic.
A former Congress legislator from UP climbed a tree, and declared that he would not come down till Sonia relented. Congressmen gathered around this new hero, as did the police, entreating him not to do something so drastic. "Finally, after an hour or so," reported The Indian Express, "Samrat climbed down, but only after police officials assured him that they would not beat him up.
Meanwhile, the Delhi MLAs who have so far been maintaining a quiet round-the-clock vigil outside 10, Janpath, said that they would immolate themselves," the paper disclosed. But, prudence personified, they said they would do so on the seventh day if by then Sonia had not withdrawn her resignation.
The Times of India reported others also taking the pledge to immolate themselves -- in the future. As well as the man on the tree. "What came as a surprise to many," it added, "was that not a single city minister, as had been announced earlier, attended the 'relay hunger strike' for most of the day. The city Congress had said the ministers will take turns in the hunger strike...
"From two groups on fasts, in the beginning, The Hindustan Times reported optimistically on the 20th, there are now fourteen. By the 21st The Indian Express was reporting that the "grotesque, non-stop drama... has now blown into a circus that threatens to get out of control." A regular street-market has come up, it said, "as vendors of kulfi, ice-cream, popcorn and burgers rush in from nearby India Gate."
The jealousies were more pounced -- the "indefinite hunger strikes" from Andhra continuing to maintain, "We are the real camp, not those relay people further ahead.... and we have been at it for three whole days." Effigies upon effigies of the three villains kept being burnt. "To add to the melee," the paper told us, "various leaders also take out their rag-tag crowd for a quick chakkar shouting slogans in an attempt at solidarity.
So, there is Girija Vyas with her small contingent, followed hastily by Salman Khurshid with his clutch of ragged supporters. After shouting and burning some more effigies, Khurshid soon went back to his office to escape the heat...." A meeting of that orphanage -- the Congress Working Committee -- was scheduled.
As he arrived, Sitaram Kesri was punched in the stomach, he was hit in the face, his spectacles were snatched, his Gandhi cap was grabbed and torn up, his car windowpane was smashed. Jitendra Prasad was roughed up... Salman Khurshid's supporters, The Economic Times reported, were heard going up to him and telling him that they had "done it".
Kesri eventually staggered into the meeting, and sent his colleagues into a panic, The Indian Express reported, as he collapsed on the floor, he wouldn't move for fifteen minutes, eventually he had to be revived with a glass of water. He wouldn't stop howling, The Economic Times said.
He couldn't understand what was being done to him: The Gandhi cap, isn't it the one he had placed at the feet of Sonia not long ago?, this distrust, isn't he the one who just the day before had, as The Indian Express reported, "worked himself into another emotional storm and tried to stop Sonia from walking out of Monday's meeting..."? "Kesri apparently caught hold of her hand," The Indian Express reported, "and begged her not to go, saying she was like his daughter and he was like her father." And within two days, this... The next day, on her way back from Rajiv's samadhi, Sonia dropped by at his house.
"Sudden silence at 10, Janpath," ran the headline of The Indian Express as it summed up, what Pranab Mukherji, would call "the ground realities" of the day. The only piece action was provided, the paper said, by youngsters of the NSUI who locked up the party headquarters. "They said that since everybody had resigned there was no point in keeping the office open," the Express reported.
"They threatened that they would not let anyone enter till Sonia came and unlocked it herself." Given the stamina of Congressmen, they soon settled for Oscar Fernandes to do the honours. The mystery, however, was in the sudden evaporation of the circus. What had happened? The Times of India of May 23 had the answer.
That visit to Kesri's house done, Sonia had stopped outside her house to meet the hunger-strikers. They were unshaven, in unkempt clothes. Concerned, moved, worried, she asked the AICC office to depute a team of doctors to them, and render medical help. "Most of the [hunger] strikers," The Times of India reported, "were reportedly found by the team of doctors 'quite well fed and fit as fiddles'.
Alarmed Congress leaders," the paper said, "then decided to end the drama before Ms Gandhi found out."It was now the turn of the hunger-strikers to turn truculent. We won't abandon the struggle, they declared. However, they soon allowed the leaders to persuade them to change the weapon of struggle: instead of hunger-strikes they would sit on dharnas.
The excitement of eating-surreptitiously-while-fasting-indefinitely gone, they drifted away... Whether she has the acumen to handle other questions which face a Prime Minister, I can't say, but one thing is clear: she can't make out a person starving himself to death from one who is, as the doctors reported, "quite well fed and fit as a fiddle."
The Afternoon Despatch & Courier
May 28, 1999