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Sonia bets on Sukh Ram baiter

New Delhi, Feb. 2: Congress president Sonia Gandhi has bet on former chief minister Veerbhadra Singh to deliver Himachal Pradesh for the party in the Assembly elections scheduled for February 26.

Singh emerged as a clear favourite with the Congress chief as the party was nearing completion of the process of selecting candidates and chalking out a poll strategy for the state.

The former chief ministerís views prevailed over those of his rivals, headed by state Congress chief Vidya Stokes, on the issue of a pre-poll alliance with the Himachal Vikas Congress led by Sukh Ram.

Sonia backed Singh, putting an end to speculation on whether the Congress would have a pre-poll arrangement with the expelled party leader. There will be no alliance or understanding with Sukh Ram, party sources said.

Singh, who heads the partyís campaign committee for Himachal, is virtually assured of becoming chief minister if the Congress wins a majority in the 68-member legislature. The party, however, will not formally project him for the post during the poll campaign.

Singh has cornered as many as 41 seats for his supporters, nearly 18 of whom were MLAs in the previous Assembly, sources said.

The rival faction under Stokes has been left with less than 25 seats.

Sonia is understood to have finalised the list of candidates for Himachal at a meeting with senior AICC colleagues on Friday night.

Over the past two weeks, the Congress had been mulling over the idea of an alliance with Sukh Ramís party, a proposal that had the backing of Stokes.

Singh, who feels that AICC general secretary in charge of Himachal, Mohsina Kidwai, favours Stokes, worked his way through other senior leaders such as Ambika Soni to get his views across to Sonia.

Singh can also depend on Soniaís support against rivals during the nomination period that ends on February 10.

AICC observers are being sent to all districts in Himachal to ensure that rival leaders do not put up rebel candidates.

Sonia, who feels the results here will have a direct impact on the Assembly polls in four Hindi-speaking states later this year, is likely to spend more time campaigning in Himachal than in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland.

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