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Amethi or Bellary? What will Sonia choose?
February 26, 2004
I received lots of responses to my last column (where I predicted that Sonia Gandhi was about to play the 'Renunciation Card' in a bid to remove one of the points in the BJP's electoral strategy). One correspondent sarcastically demanded that I reveal just how and when I had gained the telepathic powers to read the Congress president's mind! The answer is that it wasn't a prediction as much as it was a careful estimate based on my sources within the Congress (I). At any rate, the argument has become academic since Sonia Gandhi herself has confirmed that her immediate priority is beating the BJP rather than pushing herself forward as prime minister.
I am bit surprised at the timing of this announcement (which I had anticipated would be take place at a more dramatic point, namely when the Election Commission had announced the dates). And, as I wrote in the same column, I believe this to be a tactical retreat -- something to be withdrawn, 'on popular demand,' after the immediate need is over. However, since I seem to be on something of a roll, let me try to answer another query: will Sonia Gandhi again choose to stand from two constituencies?
In 1999 the Congress (I) president stood from Bellary in Karnataka as well as from Amethi. She beat Sushma Swaraj (whom the BJP chose as its candidate). Could 2004 see a rematch?
Probably not. In 1999 the Congress (I) feared a collusion between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati to ensure the defeat of Sonia Gandhi. She and her acolytes decided it made sense for her to stand from a second constituency, one far removed from the influence of either Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati. Southern India then presented itself, and Karnataka became the choice of the day since it was -- and is -- the only southern state where the Congress (I) could win without allies. The BJP's decision to send Sushma Swaraj was a calculated move to scare the Congress president.
Things are slightly different in 2004. For starters, I believe that it makes more sense to use Sushma Swaraj¹s gifts as a campaigner everywhere than to tie her down in a high-profile contest. For another, Mayawati is not inclined to pick a fight with the Congress (I) since she has enough on her plate after picking fights with the BJP and the Samajwadi Party.
Technically, Mulayam Singh Yadav too is an ally of the Congress (I) since that party is offering support from outside to his government in Uttar Pradesh. But that means next to nothing since he doesn't really need the party's support to survive. (The Congress Legislature Party in Uttar Pradesh will probably split if the party high command orders it to withdraw its backing to the Mulayam Singh Yadav ministry.) There is thus a decent chance that he shall offer tacit backing to anyone who has a decent chance of taking on Sonia Gandhi in Amethi. But that is not in the least likely given that Sanjay Singh, the BJP candidate from Amethi in 1998 and 1999, has returned to the Congress fold.
The fact remains, however, that the Congress sees the Samajwadi Party as its major rival in Uttar Pradesh. The reason is simple: they are both fighting for the same chunk of votes. (Both parties appear to have conceded that there is little chance of wooing voters away from the BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party.)
In theory, it is always open for the BJP, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party to join hands against Sonia Gandhi. If the Congress (I) president and her inner circle happen to feel particularly paranoid about this scenario, I suppose Sonia Gandhi could always keep a constituency open as a contingency. If so, I am sure the name of the seat in question will be kept a secret as far as is humanly possible to avoid the major Opposition party in the area from rushing in a strong contender.
But I really do not believe that Sonia Gandhi will choose Bellary as her sanctuary once again. I understand that both the major parties have conducted discreet pre-election surveys in Bellary. The conclusion was the same: Bellary is not as safe as it was in 1999. Bellary enjoyed its moment of fame in 1999 just as Chikmagalur had done 22 years earlier. But how many people can state which party represents Indira Gandhi's 'come-back' seat today? And so it shall be with Bellary now.
T V R Shenoy