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The Rediff Special / George Iype in New Delhi
April 13, 2004
The Congress is facing a huge problem ahead of the general election: an absence of second-rung leaders to campaign across the country.
In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party has unleashed a number of people like general secretaries Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, Union minister Sushma Swaraj, and chief ministers Narendra Modi (Gujarat) and Uma Bharti (Madhya Pradesh).
Leading the BJP campaigners are Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani and party President M Venkaiah Naidu.
At the Congress headquarters in New Delhi, the party's campaign managers daily chalk out plans for their only star campaigner, Sonia Gandhi.
Her son Rahul is campaigning in Amethi, from where he is fighting the first election of his life. The party will soon send him to other parts of Uttar Pradesh.
The schedule of Priyanka Vadra, Sonia's daughter, is yet to be announced.
"This is a problem in our party," admits a Congress leader. "Apart from Sonia Gandhi and her children, the Congress does not have any charismatic leaders to campaign for its candidates across the country.
"Soniaji is our only weapon against the BJP's so-called carpet bombing election campaign. Our second-run leaders are cooling their heels in Delhi or at state capitals. They campaign for themselves, and not for candidates."
Congress campaigners include Congress Working Committee members Meira Kumar, Ambika Soni, Motilal Vora, Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel, Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh and A K Antony.
CWC member Oscar Fernandes says it is unfair to dub the party's campaigners as incompetent. "It is true that Soniaji is our best campaigner. But all the senior leaders are touring constituencies, especially in their respective states, campaigning for Congress candidates."
He says leaders like CWC members Kamal Nath, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Salman Khurshid and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit have hectic campaign schedules.
But despite such claims, many in the party admit that the Congress' second-rung cannot match that of the BJP.
To add to the Congress' woes, party leaders are fighting among themselves, rather than targeting the BJP, with the result that there is a virtual revolt in crucial states like Andhra Pradesh, where an assembly election will also be held.
A Congress campaign manager says the party's biggest problem is that its distribution of tickets is not yet over, while the BJP completed the exercise two weeks ago.
"I don't think people like Arjun Singh or M L Fotedar can draw crowds so we are not deputing these leaders for any rallies," he says.
Congress leaders believe the only way out is to deploy Rahul and Priyanka across the country.
"Restricting Rahul and Priyanka to Uttar Pradesh does not help. They need to move out to other parts of the country quickly. But the decision on it is still pending," the campaign manager adds.