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|August 18, 1999||
Backward Bellary hits big time with Sonia-Sushma clash
George Iype in Bangalore
Congress president Sonia Gandhi's search for a safe seat to contest the general election ended today with her filing the nomination papers in Bellary, Karnataka.
But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sprang a surprise and took Gandhi head-on by fielding its most prominent woman politician Sushma Swaraj in Bellary.
Thus overnight, Bellary - a dry, dusty, backward district bordering Andhra Pradesh in north Karnataka -- has become the most prestigious electoral battle zone in South India.
Though speculation was rife that Gandhi would chose two constituencies - one each in the South and the North -- to launch her electoral career and lift the party's sagging fortunes, Congress politicians in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were on tenterhooks for more than 12 hours from last night.
Gandhi, who flew to Hyderabad from Delhi last night with senior Congress politician Ghulam Nabi Azad, chose to keep her choice of constituency under wraps.
But in Hyderabad word got round that Gandhi would indeed contest from Cuddapah. Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, who has won the Cuddapah seat four times in a row, was sent to the constituency to oversee preparations for her electoral debut.
But while hoards of Congress workers and reporters left for Cuddapah to witness Gandhi filing her papers, she left for Bellary in a special aircraft in the morning.
"Soniaji's decision to contest from Bellary in Karnataka is a loss for us. But we are not unhappy because she is fighting from South India and the Bellary constituency consists of numerous Telugus," Rajasekhara Reddy told rediff.com on telephone from Cuddapah.
Soon, the Congress president accompanied by Azad and Karnataka PCC president S M Krishna, submitted four sets of nominations proposed by party politicians Basavarajeshwari, S R Rangappa, Kasim Sab and Umakanthappa.
BJP politicians in Bangalore disclosed that the party leadership had decided "much earlier" to field Swaraj against Gandhi, no matter which constituency she chose in the South.
On Wednesday morning, the prime minister's office was informed of the security arrangements for Gandhi in Bellary. Soon, BJP politicians flew Swaraj down to Bellary. Civil Aviation Minister Ananth Kumar and BJP general secretary in charge of Karnataka M Venkaiah Naidu accompanied Swaraj.
"It is going to be a swadeshi-versus-videshi contest. We have fielded a Bharatiya nari against a foreigner in Bellary," Kumar told rediff.com
He said the fear of defeat must have forced the Congress president to come to Bellary because the constituency has always voted Congress. "But now that Sonia is contesting from Bellary, the constituency is no more a Congress bastion. We will win there hands down," he claimed.
BJP politicians said all top party leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani, will campaign for Swaraj in Bellary "to ensure that Gandhi is defeated".
But Krishna countered, "The victory margin for Soniaji in Bellary will be the highest in the country this time."
"The people of Karnataka are honoured that Soniaji has decided to contest the election from our state. This great gesture from her will ensure that the Congress will come out victorious in the parliamentary and assembly elections in Karnataka," he told rediff.com
This is not the first time the Gandhi family has turned to the South to fight elections, what with the dynasty's hold over the electorate in Uttar Pradesh diminishing over the years. Thus, though Congress politicians say Gandhi will file her nomination from Amethi as well, her hunt for a safe constituency in Karnataka is to make sure her electoral debut does not end in disaster.
"Like her mother-in-law, Soniaji has also turned to Karnataka for a great political victory," one Congress politician commented.
Plagued by the after-effects of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi in 1978 had turned to Karnataka, a Congress bastion then, for a safe victory in a parliamentary bye-election in Chikmagalur. Her victory had resurrected Mrs Gandhi's political career as well as the Congress.
Congress sources said Sonia Gandhi had entrusted four of her key advisers - A K Antony, K Vijayabhaskar Reddy, Pranab Mukherjee and Azad - the job of recommending some safe seats in the South.
They came up with six seats: Bellary and Chikmagalur in Karnataka, Cuddapah, Medak and Miryalaguda in Andhra Pradesh, and Kottayam in Kerala.
"But Sonia herself picked Bellary after a Congress research team proposed that it is the safest bet for her," a Congress politician said.
Bellary is the only constituency in the country from where the Congress has not lost in the last 12 parliamentary elections.
In fact, to test the public response, Gandhi launched the Congress election campaign from there last month. "More than one lakh people attended the rally though it was raining. Gandhi was overwhelmed," the Congress politician added.
Political analysts believe that the main issue in Bellary for the Congress and the BJP will be Gandhi's foreign origin. The BJP is all set to launch a campaign against her Italian origin by projecting Swaraj as a swadeshi politician.
But Congress politicians claim the swadeshi-versus-videshi debate will die a natural death after Gandhi wins hands down in Bellary.
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