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|August 18, 1999||
'Sonia's running scared of losing in Amethi'
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
So what was all that drama about Congress president Sonia Gandhi contesting from this, that and the other constituency?
Ask Congress leaders and you get nothing satisfactory. Try again, ask them why Gandhi went for Bellary when Amethi, her late husband's constituency, is ready and waiting. Was it because that constituency goes to the polls in the latter part of September and, so, there's still time to file her papers? In any case, why all the secrecy about Gandhi's constituency?
"We must be allowed to decide when we want to give the news," said Pranab Mukherjee. He said the Congress had no intention of misleading the media, and admitted that the leader in Andhra Pradesh who announced that Gandhi was contesting from Cuddapah had done wrong.
"Our intention was to keep it a secret, not give out wrong information," he clarified.
Another Congress leader said that what the party wanted to show was Gandhi's pan-Indian identity and that Indians anywhere would vote for her regardless of the questions raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
"She will win in Bellary and in Amethi, and with these two victories, we can tell the people that Gandhi is acceptable to people across the country," he said. "Is there any BJP leader who can do the same?"
Congress leaders claimed that it was not the fear of losing in Amethi that prompted Gandhi to contest from Bellary. "Even BJP leaders have contested from two constituencies in the past," said Congress spokesperson Kapil Sibal.
The BJP, however, insisted that that was the reason why Gandhi flew to Bellary. "She is running scared of losing in Amethi," an official said. "Sanjay Singh, who is contesting on a BJP ticket, has worked hard there and has every chance of winning."
Be that what it is, if the Congress's purpose was to surprise the enemy camp, it failed miserably. The BJP got wind of the plan late last night and immediately nominated party spokesperson Sushma Swaraj. Which was how Swaraj took off immediately to Bangalore and from there, on Wednesday morning, by helicopter to Bellary to file her papers.
Incidentally, Swaraj had earlier said she would not contest the election as she wanted to devote more time to party affairs. A BJP statement said it was in deference to the wishes of the party leaders that she had agreed to face Gandhi.
Political observers, however, point out another possibility: that the BJP had held back Swaraj to oppose Gandhi. In which case, the talk of her not contesting was to mislead the Congress.
Sources said another person who was keen to face Gandhi, a move that has immense publicity value, was Uma Bharati -- but the leadership turned her down.
Though the Congress insisted that Swaraj's candidature would have no effect on Gandhi's chances, the BJP move could well pay off. The saffron party's plan is clear: a desi beti versus a videshi bahu, or an Indian daughter versus a foreign daughter-in-law.
A statement from BJP general secretary Narendra Modi made this clear when it said the party had fielded a person who is in tune with the national ethos while the Congress has fielded someone who is alien to it.
The party also derided Gandhi for seeking a safe passage to Parliament, saying it reveals her uncertainty of winning from Amethi.
BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, in answer to Sibal's comment, agreed that his partymen have contested from more than one constituency in the past. But that was only when they were doubtful of winning from their home constituency.
"Today, none of our top leaders have any doubt that they will win from their constituencies, whether it is A B Vajpayee in Lucknow or L K Advani in Gandhinagar. Hence, there is no reason to contest two constituencies," he said.
Krishnamurthy also pointed out that if a leader won from two seats, then giving up one (a Lok Sabha member can represent only one constituency) becomes a headache. "Both constituencies insist the leader quit the other seat. And whichever is abandoned then tends to turn hostile. We have had such experiences in the past and after that decided never again to allow our leaders to contest from two seats," he added.
The Congress, it would appear, is more confident of Bellary than Amethi. Because, though the latter is considered a family borough, the party has lost it on a few occasions, including in the last election when Satish Sharma was the candidate. Gandhi had appealed to the Amethi voters to elect Sharma, who was a confidant of Rajiv Gandhi, but that went unheard.
On the other hand, the Congress has never lost an election in Bellary.
Incidentally, the Congress does not have a clean win-record in Cuddapah. The seat was, till some time ago, a communist stronghold. Moreover, the Telugu Desam Party has fielded the well-known Telugu actress Vijayashanti there.
Political observers agreed that though Swaraj is unlikely to win, she will certainly give Gandhi more trouble in Bellary than the latter would have liked.
Swaraj, for her part, has a major weakness: her husband, Kaushal, who has on record cast aspersions on the prime minister and the BJP.
"We will certainly use all the statements Kaushal made against the BJP and the prime minister. It will help reduce the impact of Sushma," a Congress leader said.
Additional reportage: Josy Joseph
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