Sonia's slow foot-work worries partymen

NEW DELHI, JULY 12 While much attention is focussed on the Congress(I)'s inability to revive itself organisationally, senior Congress leaders are worried on another count: the party president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi's political reflexes and responses have become rather dysfunctional. Twice in recent days, the party failed to react in time and in the right measure: if the response to the pro-LTTE noises at the Erode convention early this month was tepid, the reaction to Dr. Farooq Abdullah's mother's death was virtually non-existent. The two cases of non-reaction reflect badly on the quality of staff support Ms. Gandhi has put in place as well as on the absence of an institutionalised consultation process on a day-to-day basis.

It is learnt that it was not until late Tuesday afternoon when Ms. Gandhi was informed about Begum Akbar Jehan Abdullah's death. So there was no reaction from her; this was jarring, to say the least, given the long, if turbulent, relationship between two families, each jealously watchful of its dynastic legacy and proprietorial claims.

More than a lapse of a social nature, the Congress(I) missed an opportunity to make a political statement of the kind the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his senior Cabinet colleagues could make. This was an occasion when Ms. Gandhi could have shown the Congress flag in the valley; and, if a request had been made, she could easily have been provided a place on the Prime Minister's aircraft to Srinagar. And the presence of the Leader of the Opposition, along with the Prime Minister, in Srinagar at Begum Abdullah's funeral could have had a far- reaching symbolic significance.

If Ms. Gandhi missed an opportunity to play the ``statesman'' on Tuesday, she could not seize the opportunity that came her way earlier this month when the Union Home Minister, Mr. L.K. Advani attended Mr. Vaiko's ``Tamil awakening convention''. Barring symbolic ``protest'' by the Tamil Nadu Congress(I) and barring a perfunctory comment from the AICC spokesman, the party failed to respond to a development on which the ruling alliance could be justifiably hauled up. By contrast, Ms. Jayalalitha reacted with sufficient indignation and with enough political arguments.

After all in October 1997, Ms. Gandhi had countenanced the competitive ``find the Rajiv Gandhi killer(s) ''slogan mongering in the Congress; excessive display of loyalty to the memory of Rajiv Gandhi by leaders such as Mr. Arjun Singh and Mr. Jitendra Prasada created a situation that led to the downfall of the I.K. Gujral Government. But these self-proclaimed defenders of the ``Rajiv legacy'' had no words of outrage that the Home Minister was attending a convention where the proclaimed offender Prabhakarn's badges and photographs were displayed, and where pro-LTTE sentiment was pervasive. At the drop of a hat, Mr. Arjun Singh is shooting off letters to the Home Minister about this or that aspect of the unfinished business of the follow-up to the Jain Commission; the same gentleman was conspicuously silent over the elaborate display of the pro-LTTE sympathies at Erode.

Both these non-reactions point to the entirely haphazard manner in which Ms. Gandhi gets and processes information. For different reasons, secretarial staff support available to her at 10, Janpath remains unchanged from what she had inherited; even after becoming the party president, there has been no accretion to her staff, though various functionaries such as Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Mr. Janardhan Dwivedi or Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyyar continue to flit in and flit out as per their usefulness at any particular hour. There is no institutionalised arrangement. And, again, for inexplicable reasons, the staff available to Ms. Gandhi in her capacity as the Leader of the Opposition is being kept at an arm's length from the 10, Janpath establishment.

But the failure is not as much secretarial as political. Ms. Gandhi has not yet instituted any arrangement which allows her to tap the collective political instincts of her senior colleagues. There is an aversion to a coterie, though individuals do behave in conspiratorial style; there is no parliamentary board; there is no political secretary. Ms. Gandhi is left to her inadequacies and her fax machine.