The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Murmurs of dissent in Congress after rout

New Delhi, Dec. 19: Sparks have began to fly in the Congress over the leadership’s move to employ “soft Hindutva” in the Gujarat campaign even as a beleaguered Sonia Gandhi broke her silence five days after the poll debacle.

In her address to party MPs, a subdued Sonia urged them not to get despondent and cautioned the chief ministers of Congress-ruled states to be “extraordinarily vigilant” against communal virus being injected into polity.

Sonia, however, failed to spell out a clear-cut strategy, leaving many Congress MPs unsure about her ability to take on the BJP’s Hindutva plank. Addressing the customary meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP), Sonia said MPs should regroup and revitalise themselves after identifying the party’s shortcomings.

Yesterday, some MPs met her in small groups and virtually questioned the Congress’ strategy in Gujarat. They said the leadership should clear “misgivings” that the party was moving away from its stated policies. In the political affairs committee meetings, too, there were veiled references that the Congress did not play its cards well.

Given Sonia’s iron grip over the Congress, even such low-key utterances and whispers are significant, indicating that all is not well in the party. While there is no threat to her leadership, the Sonia camp is worried that if the party loses other states, the disquiet would gain momentum.

As part of a damage-control exercise, Sonia managers hinted at a change of the state Congress chiefs in Delhi, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and a revamp of the AICC secretariat.

In her address, Sonia regretted that the BJP and its Sangh parivar allies lowered the level of public discourse in Gujarat and preached “virulent hatred and spread poison”.

The Congress had limitations as it “confronted and battled figures and forces who respected no rules of language or action, who observed no limits in words and deeds,” she said.

Referring to the defeat in Gujarat, Sonia said partymen should view it as an opportunity to prepare themselves for a bigger battle in future. “We respect the verdict of the people. Of course, we are disappointed by the results but there is no room for despondency,” she said.

On elections in nine states next year, Sonia said the Congress would do well if it succeeds in combining good governance, effective communications and quick responses to local crises with skillful political management. “In the Congress-ruled states, it would enable us to defeat the so-called anti-incumbency factor,” she said.

Coming back to Gujarat, Sonia said partymen should not get disillusioned. “You should actively involved in the reconstruction and reconciliation process of Gujarat keeping in mind the welfare of all, irrespective of religion,” she said.

Disagreeing with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s remark that the communal divide would recede in Gujarat, Sonia said: “It is no use saying that after the heat of campaign, passions will cool and the irresponsible will rediscover a sense of sobriety.”

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