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                        Virendra Kapoor

Tarun Vijay, the high-profile editor of the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, recently flew to Italy to see for himself Congress president Sonia Gandhi's parental home.

What he has come back with isn't earthshaking. The latest Panchjanya carries pictures of the main street in Orbassano, a small town 20 kilometres from Turin, where Sonia was born. House number 14, named Vincenzo Bellini, was owned by Stephano Maieno, Sonia's father who died some years ago.

Vijay met Stephano's friend Omdiyao and his French wife Katia -- the couple's photograph adorns the front page -- who are quoted as telling him, "Stephano was a construction worker, a simple and good man."

Vijay concludes that Sonia was such a poor student that not one of her contemporaries whom he met was willing to vouchsafe that she cleared her high-school examination. It was one of those quirks of fate that she was sent to London to 'study English and, running short of money, began to work as a waitress in a restaurant where she came in contact with Rajiv Gandhi.'

Incidentally, Sonia's niece, Oroona Vinchi, runs a small shop in Orbassano which is full of Indian handicrafts -- incense sticks, rudrakhsa beads etc.

The editor could not resist asking Vinchi whether she didn't find it highly unusual that a little-known woman from Orbassano should be making a bid for the office of the Indian prime minister. Pat came the reply:

"Well, if you people are ready to bestow leadership on her, what can we [Italians] do?"

Shaping opinion

Demoralised by the exit polls that predict the Congress is trailing far behind the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the party arranged one of its own. A friendly newspaper willingly lent its name as a sponsor.

The poll naturally shows the Congress ahead of the BJP. Inspired by the free publicity the sponsor was getting, another newspaper group came forward to lend its name to an exit poll. This too was an in-house Congress job. The latest newspaper sponsor had first approached the BJP but when the party showed no interest, the Congress was wooed. Which snapped up the offer with alacrity.

Now instead of one, the Congress has two in-house exit polls to play around with.

The way they do it in Dhanbad

Murkier it gets, the tale of Varun Maira.

An IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, he was the Election Commission observer in Bihar's Dhanbad parliamentary constituency. Maira, our sources say, ran up a bill of nearly Rs 17,000 on liquor alone. He mostly remained confined to his room in the Bharat Cooking Coal Limited guesthouse. The collector and superintendent of police were particularly solicitous of Maira's wellbeing.

On the polling day, as the local administration looked the other way when Laloo Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal goons captured several booths, the BJP's Rita Verma, seeking re-election from Dhanbad for the third time, complained to Maira. The EC observer visited some of the captured booths.

But the collector and SP were very friendly with Maira, weren't they? They approached him with a pre-written report that said the polling in Dhanbad had gone on peacefully -- now would Maira mind signing here?

"When Maira refused," goes the grapevine, "the SP, Reggie Dung Dung, hit him with the butt of his pistol and threatened to kill him. Of course, he signed."

Maira was so shaken that he left Dhanbad immediately, insisting on an old college friend escorting him out of the coal town. All the while he kept mumbling, "That mafia will kill me... I will not come back here."

The SP's version, however, is different. He says he hit Maira when he asked for "a dark young tribal girl to be brought for his pleasure."

Maira insists that he told the real story to a senior EC official. But for the EC, the written report on which his signatures were there held good, which may be why no re-poll has been ordered in any of the booths in Dhanbad.

A new poll ditty

The Sitaram Kesri-led Congress' slogan in the last parliamentary election, 'Koney, koney sey nata hain, sarkar chalana aata hain [We have presence in every part of the country, and we know how to govern.]' has been re-worked by the BJP in UP this time. Thus:

'Swiss bank mein khata hain,
sarkar girana aata hain
[We have a secret account in Swiss bank,
We know how to pull down governments]
.'

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