How does she do it?

I have said all I wanted to say about my reservations about the women’s reservation bill in my column anandan on Wednesday this week.

Like I said in the column, I am agnostic about the bill – I neither believe in it nor do I knock it. I simply doubt that it will help at all (help the common woman, that is).

But whatever my reservations, I am amazed at how Sonia Gandhi managed to have the bill passed in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, March 9. That morning it looked as though not just the fate of the bill but also her authority over her party was at risk. For, I know as a matter of fact that many men in her party were as determined as Lalu and Mulayam Yadav to ensure that it never became law and I thought they would surreptitiously pitch in to scuttle the bill. But now I do not think too many of them will dare voice their opposition.

I wonder what makes Sonia Gandhi take all the right calls and achieve miracle after miracle in such quick succession. This particular bill had been hanging in the balance for 14 years and when several more stable governments could not manage to get it through, it really did require a great deal of political will to push it at the risk of so much endangerment of the UPA’s future.

I have heard people say quite often that we cannot find one single Indian to rule this country and follow it up with the query: why should Indians have to kowtow to the Italian bahu of Mrs Indira Gandhi? In fact, I am looking to all those critics for an answer: yes, really, why?

But I think I have a clue. And that came from a British diplomat to quite another question. We were discussing how the Indian diaspora was among the highest wage earners everywhere else in the world (and thus, not surprisingly, they incurred the wrath of the locals in their adopted countries for beating them to and keeping their jobs by sheer dint of hard work). Yet, when it came to our own country, we were among the poorest, most backward and taking too long getting anywhere.

The diplomat said, “Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Indians follow the rules to the `t’ wherever they live abroad. In India they break the law all the time and so make it difficult for both themselves and others to get along.’’

Then a Congress worker told me why he preferred Sonia Gandhi to her husband, Rajiv. “She has a very European outlook on rules and honour. She keeps her word and will not allow any violations. For example, if the maximum age for a youth congress leader is 35, she will not allow any one older to be elected to that post. No other considerations like caste et al except what is stated in the rulebook. That is heartening for the rest of us: we know we will eventually get there if we fit the bill and no one can bring any untoward influence to bear upon her to push us off the ladder. Even Rajivji was not so correct, he would allow the occasional jugaad. ’’

That was a eulogy of his party president, of course, but I now wonder if that is true. Perhaps she does bring a sense of honour and follows the rules in everything she does and so succeeds more than others who believe in, well, jugaad (manoeuvring people and situations to suit their needs).

But on Tuesday, as she gave interviews to women journalists on television, I was impressed by Sonia’s tone and pitch – happy but thanking all the men for having made it possible. Gracious for their support to both the Left parties and the BJP which have knocked her endlessly over various issues but not gloating about it at all a la the Yadavs, keeping a door open for the allies and, of course, very self-effacing.

I say `self-effacing’ because when I first met her in Nasik several years ago, after she first took over the party’s reigns in the middle of an election in 1998 and miraculously helped a losing Congress win 45 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra, she was quick to give the credit to Sharad Pawar. And when we asked her about her role as the Congress president, she said, “I am only the latest in a long series of Congress presidents. Other Congress leaders have been around longer than I have been and it is they who have done things for the party, not me. I am still learning.’’

I guess she has learnt well by now and I remark upon another thing: in the decade at the start of which even her own party men took her with several fistfuls of salt to now, she seems to have muted the criticism about her being a misfit in Indian politics and put their uncertainty about her ability to deliver to rest.

The Congress is the most indisciplined, chaotic and irreverent party I know. Yet they revere their party president more than the Shiv Sainiks do Bal Thackeray or the BJP does its own succession of party chiefs. Perhaps that is because she delivers to them nine times out of ten, while others do not. But I continue to wonder: did Sonia Gandhi learn it all at the feet of her mother-in-law or is she bringing a European sense of commitment to her party that helps her defeat the might of the BJP and its formidable allies in 2004 and return with an even greater majority in 2009? And now give to Indian women what no man (or even woman — most notably Indira Gandhi) has dared or cared to before?

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