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The Rediff Special/Anand Bhisey in Nagpur

June 30, 2004

With assembly elections just over two months away and the party having just suffered a setback in the Lok Sabha election, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi decided to opt for a change in the leadership in the Maharashtra unit.

Her choice is 69-year-old Prabha Rau, who, like her predecessor Ranjit Deshmukh, hails from the Vidarbha region in the eastern part of the state. Once considered its stronghold, the party suffered its worst drubbing in Vidarbha in the last Lok Sabha election winning just one of the 11 seats in the region. Rau was one of the losers.

A veteran with over 32 years of standing in politics, who had earlier made a name for herself as a sportsperson, she is expected to bring about a turnaround and help the party retain power in the politically and financially crucial state.

Besides, her political acumen, she may need to draw upon her experience as a sportsperson of some standing to live up to the expectations.

Rau hails from Kolhapur village in Deoli tehsil of Wardha district. She had represented Nagpur University and the state in athletics, including long jump, high jump, hurdles and discus throw.

She began her political innings by contesting the election to the president of the district's central co-operative bank, which she won. Shortly afterwards, in 1972, she was elected to the Maharashtra legislative assembly from Deoli constituency.

She was elected five more times from the same constituency, which is a record of sorts. She spent a total of nearly 22 years as a member of the assembly, from 1972 to 1990 and then again from 1995 to 1999. She was elected to the Lok Sabha from Wardha constituency in 1999, but lost in 2004.

She has held several important positions, serving as minister of state (1972-1976) and cabinet minister (1976-1978, 1988-1990) in Maharashtra, leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly (1979), deputy leader of the Congress Legislature Party (1985-1990), chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women (1993-1995) and member of the parliamentary consultative committees on external affairs and power.

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During her tenure in the state cabinet, she handled the portfolios of planning, industry, education, sports, youth affairs, cooperation, tourism, revenue and cultural affairs.

This is her second tenure as chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, having held the post in 1984-1989. She has served as All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of as many as six states - Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Goa, Rajasthan, Delhi and Gujarat.

Rau holds a master's degree in political science and a diploma in Indian classical music from the renowned Bhatkhande Sangeet Vidyalaya. Married on October 14, 1959, she has two daughters. She lists music, watching sports, reading and cooking among her hobbies. She is widely travelled, having visited Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States and Mexico besides the erstwhile Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

But her long innings in politics and her ability to tackle weighty issues were not the only reasons for Sonia Gandhi to choose her to lead the party in Maharashtra at this crucial juncture.

First, she is a known loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Secondly, she is believed to be on good terms with Mayawati whose Bahujan Samaj Party's excellent showing was the main reason for the Congress rout in Vidarbha.

Convinced that the rout is the result of its government's neglect of the region, the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party is trying to make amends. However, to be on the safe side, Gandhi is reportedly keen on forging an alliance with the BSP.

Rau now has the unenviable task of fighting the anti-incumbency wave, strengthening the Congress, overcoming factional fights, forging alliances, coming up with a manifesto and fending off the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance.

For the kind of balancing act Rau will be called upon to do, some of the skills she practised on the sporting arena might just come in handy.


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