The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bad dreams over, Congress scans hills

New Delhi, Dec. 31: Reconciled to believing that Gujarat and Goa were the party’s bad dreams of 2002, the Congress leadership has turned to Himachal Pradesh to return to its winning ways and wrest the political initiative from the BJP in the new year.

Wresting the state from the BJP is seen to be critical, ahead of the party’s more crucial electoral battles when it confronts the task of defending its Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi backyards later in 2003.

Ahead of the expected polls to the 68-member Himachal Assembly in February, the first major electoral battle in the new year, the Congress leadership has commissioned poll surveys for internal assessment of the ground situation.

According to party sources, two such surveys have been held, both giving the party an edge over the ruling BJP. According to one survey, the sources said, the Congress can expect to win up to 42 seats. But this survey was based on a narrow sample size of 750 voters, the sources said.

The second broad-based survey has given the party up to 37 seats.

While the surveys have given a quiet confidence to the party central leadership, a senior Congress leader from Himachal cautioned: “These surveys must be taken as inputs to the party’s electoral preparations. We should avoid jumping to conclusions that the party has already won the elections.”

Even though the BJP would be fighting the polls with the anti-incumbency burden, the party leadership would seek to replicate the Gujarat “experiment” of playing up Hindutva and terrorism themes to turn attention away from its record in office, the Congress leader said.

“The BJP has already launched an aggressive campaign in the state, which is being perceived by the Prime Minister as falling within his sphere of influence in the way Gujarat was seen as L.K. Advani’s territory,” he said.

The key to converting the advantage into victory, he said, would be the Congress’ ticket distribution between two powerful factions — one led by former chief minister and legislature party leader Veer Bhadra Singh and the other by PCC president Vidhya Stokes.

The AICC general-secretary in charge of the state, Mohsina Kidwai, is understood to have already begun the preparatory exercise for ticket distribution.

Indications are that neither leader would be projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, though Singh is considered more popular of the two.

Curiously, the Congress central leadership confronts a dilemma — that on Assembly Speaker Thakur Ghulab Singh. He is reported to have shown interest in a party ticket.

Though he had played into the hands of the BJP and Himachal Vikas Congress leader Sukh Ram to pave way for the installation of the P.K. Dhumal ministry five years ago, Ghulab Singh is considered quite a popular Thakur leader.

While the Congress central leadership is inclined to accommodate him, it is worried about the possibility of stiff resistance from the state leadership.

The state leadership has held against the Speaker his daughter’s marriage with Dhumal’s son.

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