Virendra Kapoor

They thought she was the greatest thing that happened to their party. But now, Congressmen -- we reported it last week, remember? -- would give many things to replace Sonia Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate.

"Selling Sonia," Congress strategists are sure to tell you if you ask nicely, "is tougher than selling (Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz) Sharief to Indians."

If truth be told, they are running scared of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee versus Sonia poll. Rather, they would have a BJP versus Congress. But unfortunately for them, as you shall learn presently, it is going to be the former kind.

After the Congress' unexpected victory in the November assembly election in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Sonia's coterie had hailed her as the greatest leader after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Thanks to these fawning courtiers, she too had come to strut her act virtually as prime minister-designate.

But what the Congressmen had failed to reckon is the fact that in the Onion Election, the mandate was more against the BJP than in Sonia's favour. The resentment against the BJP was fuelled by the inordinately high prices of onion and Vajpayee's seeming failure to put All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's J Jayalalitha in her place.

The government has now regained much lost ground. The loss of the trust motion by a lone vote -- that of the Congress's Orissa Chief Minister Girdhar Gomang -- and the aborted bid by the Opposition to provide an alternative government have further added to Vajpayee's lustre.

Sonia's stock began to plummet sharply the day she offered herself as prime ministerial candidate and boasted before the world media in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan that "we have advised the President that we will have 272 MPs or may be even more."

In the event, she failed to make good that claim and suffered public ridicule.

The Hand replaces Madam

The Sharad Pawar-Purno Sangma rebellion further chipped away at Sonia's hold. The poor attendance at much-hyped Sonia rallies did the rest.

Along the way she did the flip-flop on Bihar, saying the Rabri Devi government had no right to continue, even as she directed her MPs to support it. And more recently, she did another in Haryana propping up the Bansi Lal government only to pull it down two weeks later.

The biggest blow came when the Congress tried to score points against the prime minister when the war in Kargil was at its peak. While the entire nation concentrated on the bravery of Indian soldiers, Sonia's party was seen anxious to tick off Vajpayee.

The upshot of all this is that 10 Janpath last week agreed to shift the focus from Sonia to the Congress. Thus is it that they are now planning to sing hallelujahs to the 'party of the freedom movement.' And thus is it that Sonia's portrait, earlier hung strategically behind the party spokesperson's chair in the All India Congress Committee office has been replaced by the party's election symbol, the Hand.

Sushma and her husband

Familiar with a gentleman called Swaraj Kaushal? No? Then try Sushma Swaraj. Ring a bell?

Well, the guy is her husband.

Anyway, Kaushal is after Vajpayee's blood, just as Mohan Guruswamy, ex adviser in the Union finance ministry, was sometime ago.

Kaushal, a Delhi lawyer, was appointed adviser in the Union home ministry with the status of a minister of state to negotiate with the rebel Nagas. Following the disastrous showing by the BJP in last year's Delhi assembly election, Vajpayee had refused to appoint Sushma a minister. Ever since the husband and wife duo has been abusing Vajpayee in no uncertain terms.

Sushma had publicly pledged not to quit the Delhi assembly even if her party was to sit in the Opposition. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP leadership impressed on her the need to keep her word, but she quit the moment it became clear that her party wouldn't form the government. Vajpayee, however, refused to make her a minister again. Hence the open sulks.

Once Swaraj went public with his criticism, the government lost no time in severing its ties. And so, both husband and wife are now whiling away time, trying to surpass Guruswamy.

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