Cantabrigian Sonia Leaves Oxford Cold

Oxford, November 30: | Updated: Dec 1 2002, 05:30am hrs
If impact were an objective before the Congress presidents ghost writers, they have cause to mourn. Her speech bombed! Thirty seconds after her 30-minuter on conflict and co-existence on Friday night, her Oxonian audience were back to their mobile phones and dinner appointments. No sparks, no fireworks! The lady has wisely told her hosts, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, that she wont take audience questions. So, she left, as she had some 30 winters ago at Cambridge, without setting the Thames on fire.

Sonia Gandhi
I didnt expect anything, so Im OK! philosophised Irish-born Shaunaka Rishi Das, director of the Centre for Vaishnava & Hindu Studies, a neighbouring school that offers vegetarian food besides an Oxford degree. No, I wont give her seven on ten, remarked PhD aspirant Vanita Mishra.

Not that K Natwar Singh, widely suspected to be the man behind Ms Sonia Gandhis intellectual effort for the evening, has done a bad job. Quite the contrary, Mr Singh has packed in a fair bit of the history he had read at Oxbridge before joining the Foreign Service. So, how about 5,000 years of tolerance. Sufism. Maulana Azad. The undying spirit of man. Why Huntington was plain silly and the clash of civilisations never was. Even Rock Edict III in Gujarat, craftily quoted, as if Ashoka had left it just for the Congress and its presidents speech. But what could Mr Singh have done with Madames delivery Or the utter absence of credible aura Or that history itself was staked against him: the Nehrus and the Gandhis have never failed to disappoint on these hallowed grounds.

To her credit, Ms Gandhi didnt nitpick with the government in New Delhi. Nor did she give credence to a Google search by BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley that helped him link her hosts with Osama bin Laden. (There is, indeed, a scholarship worth 4,000 at the Islamic Centre in the name of Osamas brother Muhammad bin Laden, but then Prince Charles remains the institutes patron and he had even received the bin Laden sibling two weeks after 9/11).

Diplomatically speaking, Ms Gandhis message to Washington and the United Nations on Iraq could well have been said by Indian high commissioner Ronen Sen, sitting in the front rows next to two visitors from Washington World Banker Montek Ahluwalia and his spouse Isher Judge.

Of some significance, if someone cared to remember, was Mr Singhs view that Americas talk of regime change in Baghdad was fraught with danger. But as the audience microphones lay unused, and interaction remained strictly one-sided, Ms Gandhis 400-odd audience remained firmly glued to their chairs, unmoved.

Alas, it was left to host Farhan Ahmad Nizami and co-chair Geoffrey Howe to assure the Congress president that she was one of the worlds few remaining reluctant leaders. One who does it ...out of a sense of obligation for a country of her adoption, as Mr Howe, once Margaret Thatchers foreign secretary and now befittingly on the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, informed those who didnt know already.

Ms Gandhi was invited by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on the theme of conflict and co-existence six months ago. Previous speakers include South African leader Nelson Mandela and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, besides patron Prince Charles of Britain.

Director Nizami has been arguing that the worlds Muslims will rise to the post-9/11 challenge, as the eagle does when the wind blows against it. The BJP has faulted Ms Gandhi for accepting this speaking engagement despite a scholarship endowed here by the bin Laden family.

As a student in the early 60s, Ms Gandhi read an English language course in Cambridge town. For unexplained reasons, this went into her official CV as a diploma from Cambridge University, an economy of fact she has now admitted. Her husband Rajiv Gandhi attempted mechanical engineering at the university but flunked.