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January 12, 1998


Sonia begins to assert herself

E-Mail this story to a friend George Iype in New Delhi

A day after she kicked off the Congress's election campaign, Sonia Gandhi began showing signs that she is in full command of the party.

On Monday, she released a signed statement from 10 Janpath, in which the late Rajiv Gandhi's widow indirectly attacked Congress president Sitaram Kesri and earnestly appealed to party workers to seriously involve themselves in the general election.

Sonia said she feels "the sense of urgency with which the Congress organisation has to be revitalised and rejuvenated". Sonia loyalists interpreted it as her first salvo against a beleaguered Kesri.

In what is seen to be as a concession to Kesri for the time being, Sonia made it clear that the election is not the right "time for recrimination, but a time to come together in solidarity and rise above all factional considerations".

While Kesri's supporters dubbed her statement as an extension of the election speech she gave in Sriperumbudur on Sunday, Sonia loyalists said this is her first direct attack on Kesri, who has failed to rejuvenate the party's rank and file.

Congress vice-president Jitendra Prasada hailed Sonia's statement, saying she is "the only leader who can steer the party to a thumping majority during the election."

"Everybody in the Congress feels the party should be revitalised and rejuvenated, and only Soniaji can fulfil this great task," Prasada, an ardent Sonia loyalist, told Rediff On The NeT.

But he said the process of 'purifying the party' will begin in right earnest soon after the election. Leaders like Prasada believe that, soon after the election, Kesri will be coerced to step down for Sonia's coronation as party president.

Sonia said she decided to plunge into politics and an active interest in Congress affairs "in response to the universal request and desire of all the party workers across the country".

"I look forward to seeing many of you (Congressmen) in the course of my election tour across the country," she said.

However, she made one point very clear with regard to the selection of candidates: she would ensure that "the candidates of the party will be selected on merit and sufficient representation will be given to the youth, women and the weaker sections of society".

Congress leaders interpreted it as Sonia's wish to be in full authority to clear the final list of candidates who will fight the election. A large section of Congress leaders have already met Sonia, requesting her involvement in the final approval of party nominations.

Many Congressmen fear that Kesri will deny them tickets because they criticised the party president's inability to pacify dissenting leaders and lead the party during the last one year.

While Congress strategists believe her election campaign in the coming month will create an unprecedented wave of support for the party, Sonia also exuded confidence that "the Congress further strengthen the roots of democracy and the secular polity of India".

Her statement is also an attempt to brush away the Opposition parties's criticism that she is a foreigner who is ignorant of the political and social realities of the country.

"As you know, I have always considered myself a member of the large Congress family and have travelled the length and breadth of the country along with my husband Rajivji and witnessed the enthusiasm and dedication with which all of you worked under his leadership," she said.

"I have also witnessed from very close quarters the unlimited trust and faith Indiraji and Rajivji reposed in you, and the manner in which all of you stood up unitedly to preserve and protect the ideals of the party under their leadership," her statement said.

Sonia said the Congress has a long history of service, struggle and sacrifice. "Thousands of Congress workers have given their all for achieving the freedom under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad," she stated.

"You are the inheritors of this legacy, and it is on your shoulders that the future of this organisation rests," Sonia's appeal to party workers said.

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