NEW DELHI: IF the Congress wrests Uttranchal from the BJP, it will not be because the masses were swept off their feet by Sonia Gandhi.
She has proved a much better public speaker in the current Assembly election campaign than she was four years ago. No longer does she sound like a schoolgirl painfully reading out a lesson in a foreign language.
But she has merely improved from pathetic to poor. Her delivery remains stilted, lacking the flow and resonance of other seasoned political campaigners. Her occasional thumping of the podium and raising of voice does not make up for a seeming lack of conviction.
She attracted a small crowd of just 4,000 or so at a week-end rally in Dehra Dun. This makes you wonder about the popular theory that the Congress is poised to overthrow the BJP.
Not only is Dehra Dun the state capital, it accounts (along with surrounding villages) for as many as three Assembly constituencies. You might think that would ensure a pretty big crowd for a potential winner. This was not the case even though Sonia was flanked by state stalwarts like Narain Dutt Tiwari and Gulam Nabi Azad.
While the audience was small, it was certainly enthusiastic. Optimists will say this proves that Sonia still has the Gandhi family touch. Pessimists will say it proves that the crowd consisted mainly of party workers.
It is sometimes said, with only modest exaggeration, that the Congress no longer has a cogent agenda and banks on anti-incumbent trends to win elections. This seemed to be the main stratregy at Dehra Dun.
Sonia claimed that under the BJP women were unsafe, youth unemployed, farmers in trouble and industries in their death throes. The state is a major recruiting ground for soldiers, and she lambasted the BJP for dishonouring the martyrs of Kargil in the coffins scandal.
The BJP was unstable, she said, having gone through three chief Ministers in Uttar Pradesh and two in Urranchal in five years. By contrast, 11 Congress state governments were stable.
Stability is no doubt a virtue, but one would have thought that elections were also about competing ideas. There was little evidence of this. Narain Dutt Tiwari, who hopes to become Chief Minister of the state, sought to introduce a cerebral element in the most bizarre of ways.
Pointing out that Dehra Dun was well known for its schools, he began to quote in English from Wordsworth, to an uncomprehending audience of Garhwalis. Did he think that students from Doon School had been summoned for the event? Or that they were old enough to vote? To which the only possible answer is that the child is father of the man. Wordsworth, you know.
Gulam Nabi Azad began by warning against the machinations of the press. Do you know, he boomed, that India Today said that the BJP got 30 per cent of the popular vote in the last election when in fact it got only 27 per cent? He failed to explain why this should be a matter of prime importance in a Garhwal election.
It is alarming that the leading lights of the Congress believe that this is the stuff that moves the masses. Yet it could still win because of public disgust with the incompetence of the ruling BJP.