| When you think of the Congress president's inner circle, the names that come to mind are Ahmad Patel, Pranab Mukherjee and Janardhan Dwivedi. But unnoticed by most, there is a new force at play within the party. Those in the know have a name for it: the SPG. No, it is not the Special Protection Group, but the Sonia Pallu Group. And nowhere was this charmed circle more obvious than on a warm March morning in Ahmedabad. After flagging off the party's Dandi March, Sonia spent over an hour in the Raj Bhavan chatting with a few Congresswomen. Both the aesthetics and the politics of the Dandi March were discussed-beginning with Sonia's sari to state politics. At a deferential distance, the men waited patiently. From party general secretaries to Union ministers, no one attempted to bridge the gender divide. |
Those part of this privileged tete-a-tete were Ambika Soni, Mohsina Kidwai, Archana Dalmia and Margaret Alva. Another favourite is Shiela Dikshit while Kumari Selja is the new kid on this very slippery block. Their male colleagues may sneer at them, but sexist barbs aside, it's an acknowledgement of an uncomfortable truth-the existence of a charmed circle. To dub this merely as gender equation would be too simplistic. All the women are suave, articulate and public school types. Women who would be at ease sipping tea in Sonia's drawing room which is really where most of Congress politics is played out. Explains Selja, "You must appreciate that as a woman her comfort level is better with women." Dikshit was the first to breach the 10 Janpath protocol, often dropping in to meet Sonia even when she was not the party chief. At a public function recently Sushil Kumar Shinde recalled the days when Dikshit was a minister in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO: "I remember how you called us late at night with a message from Rajiv. I still hear his words when I speak to you."
When Sonia did take the political plunge, she used Dikshit as a foil taking her along for most of her public appearances. Soni only moved in after Dikshit became Delhi chief minister in 1998. Soni accompanied her on campaign trails and soon began to be known as Ambika Sonia. Dismissing charges of favouritism, Soni says, "I travelled with her to areas I was in charge of as general secretary." Eight years ago, Soni's charge had extended to helping Sonia host her first political iftaar. Even today, it is either Soni, Selja or Dalmia who help Sonia host political events. Sometimes Sonia returns the favour. A few months ago when Selja's friend Panabaka Lakshmi, a first-time minister of state, hosted a dinner, Sonia too was present. Later it was learnt that she had come at Selja's behest.
Sonia has moulded the gender equation into a political platform. This is not a social listing. With Sonia, unlike Rajiv, the social and political worlds do not overlap. Each of these women had been sidelined under Narasimha Rao's presidentship. Today each plays an important role. Says Alva, "Soniaji does take special care to give women their place in the party." For Alva, it took a while to find her place. She had been trying to break into Sonia's hallowed circle ever since she beat the others and procured a cup of black tea for the Congress president at her 'coming out' party hosted by Najma Heptullah in 1998. But it was only two years ago, when her bete noire Soni was on her way out, that Alva was made general secretary. After that her interaction with the Congress president has increased. She has an issue-based relationship with the party chief, camouflaging her personal agenda in populist issues such as protesting against the Mumbai slum demolitions or the SEZ policy. These stands gel with Sonia's pro-aam admi plank.
All of them have to take an appointment before visiting 10 Janpath. But it is Dalmia who meets Sonia almost daily. She is the one who stands behind Sonia holding a plate of colours on Holi or a sheaf of papers during her public interactions. In-charge of the party's grievance cell for over a decade, it was only after Sonia took over that Dalmia became a Somebody. She protests: "I'd rather not be projected as someone close to Sonia Gandhi. We all have been allotted work." Despite this, senior general secretaries don't mind her dropping into their offices unannounced. She is seen as Sonia's messenger, a wannabe Usha Bhagat to the current Mrs Gandhi. Yet the group is not without internal dynamics and competition. Soni has teamed up with Patel to undercut Kidwai and Dikshit. At another level, Congressmen gossip about the Alva-Soni turf war. With eyebrows raised in mock horror, Alva exclaims, "I don't know why people keep saying that. Have you ever seen us squabble?" Their special equation with Sonia, however, works best when they are under attack from the rest of their colleagues. Each has managed to retain her clout despite constant pressure from other Congressmen. Soni may have been sidelined from the party hierarchy when she was made a Cabinet minister earlier this year but she is still a general secretary and gets to attend most party functions. Her nameplate hangs outside her empty room at the Congress office. Dikshit 's equation with Sonia is under constant pressure but she survives. Kidwai's detractors thought they had scored when Sonia removed her as general secretary, but six months ago when Sonia resigned over the office of profit controversy, it was Kidwai she took along with her to Rae Bareli. In Sonia's world, such gestures mean a lot.
As this is the Congress, sycophancy is often the reigning ideology. When Sonia refused prime ministership, Soni said no to ministership. In an emotional letter to Sonia she wrote, "Allow me to emulate you. My association with you is valuable and I cherish it." Dalmia calls Sonia a "messiah". But Selja has the last word: "For woman politician, Congress is definitely the best party to be in."