Virendra Kapoor

Madam has lost it. Her mass appeal, we mean.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's crowd-pulling power has dwindled so much that partymen are now reluctant to organise public meetings for her. The embarrassingly thin attendance, they say, would undo everything. Consequently, her backroom handlers have sought to make a virtue of a terrible necessity:

They have re-christened her public rallies as -- *grin* -- Congress workers' meetings!

The poor turnout has demoralised the leadership. The rethink was dictated by the utter failure of what was billed as the comeback rally of the Uttar Pradesh Congress. Despite massive publicity, not more than 15,000 people could be persuaded to attend Sonia's rally in Varanasi a few weeks ago. The flop immediately led Sonia to jot down UP Congress chief Salman Khursheed's name in her bad book.

So now, the party managers have revised their strategy. The dwindling popularity of the Congress' sole vote-catcher, they decided, should not be exposed to the media. Hence the stratagem of workers' meetings.

The explanation for the consumption of the media, however, is that Sonia needs to communicate directly with the party workers.

The meeting at the Lucknow UP Congress Bhavan on Monday was the first of such rallies. But far from exchanging views freely with the so-called cadres, Sonia struck to her usual routine, reading from a prepared text and then whizzing off in a carcade of commandos and cops to fly back to the capital. Because it was termed a workers' meeting, the media did not pan it for being poorly attended...

Hey, on second thoughts, it wasn't all that bad -- for a workers' meeting, it was pretty well attended.

Shooed out

Natwar Singh, the Congress' public face on Kargil, has been side-lined.

His nitpicking of the conflict with Pakistan has proved counter-productive. In various opinion polls, Singh has emerged as the villain of Kargil. Indeed, the ruling BJP-led coalition believes that the more Singh speaks in public the better will be its prospects for election!

The feedback from several partymen that Singh's excessive criticism had not gone down well with the public, Sonia last week ordered the former diplomat to maintain a low-profile. Singh, thus, will now spend more time in his native Rajasthan.

Allies dread a strong BJP

Contrary to the impression that the proposed migration of a substantial chunk of Janata Dal to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance would be welcome to the BJP, senior leaders of the saffron brigade are wary.

The endeavour by the likes of George Fernandes, Ramakrishna Hegde and Ram Vilas Paswan is viewed with great suspicion by the senior echelons. Simply put, the BJP fears that the consolidation of the old Janata Dal would be used to curb the party's growing clout.

On the other hand, circles close to Fernandes emphasise that all remnants of the former Socialist Party need be united in order to increase the non-BJP elements in the NDA. They reckon that Vajpayee's growing popularity could be harmful to such non-BJP constituents. Ideally, Fernandes and gang wouldn't like the BJP to cross the 200 mark in the next Lok Sabha on its own. The logic is that the more seats the BJP wins, less will be the clout of other constituents in the new coalition.

Meanwhile, the former secular-socialists in the Janata Dal are ready to shed all ideological pretensions and embrace saffron. JD president Sharad Yadav, former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral and Paswan are all set to make common cause with the saffronites -- anything is worth getting into the next Lok Sabha, they seem to feel.

Another 'secularist' who wouldn't mind teaming up with the BJP is Humble Farmer H D Deve Gowda. And he would too, provided the BJP withdraws the platform it has offered to his bete noire Hegde.

Tu nahin, aur sahi

Call it crass commercialism. Or, if you aren't too particular, sheer professionalism.

The advertising whiz kids who till very recently were making a strong pitch for the Rs 150-million BJP media account are now trying for the Congress. The BJP recently said no to the promos done for it by an ad agency, instead deciding to retain a genuine party faithful, Tara Sinha, as consultant.

Capital Buzz