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Hill-high Cong crows at Sonia son rise

Bhopal, March 2: The big celebrations over, the electoral victories in Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya were slated for late night. But for Congress members in Madhya Pradesh, the drumbeats and dancing had begun early on Saturday afternoon, marking the defeat of “Hindutva forces” and the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as party president Sonia Gandhi’s key backroom manager.

The electoral victories in Shimla and Shillong have special significance for Madhya Pradesh Congress members.

First, it reassured them that the Congress had retained its hold over the majority community. If Himachal, with almost 98 per cent majority community votes, could reject heavyweights like L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi, there was no reason why Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh — with his overt religiosity — should not score over people like Uma Bharti.

Second, it signalled the emergence of the Rahul Gandhi factor in Congress politics. The young Gandhi was finally assisting his mother in Delhi — supervising, planning strategy and providing vital computer-based data. His consistent feedback that the Congress would get at least 36 out of he 65 Assembly seats in Himachal made many instantly shift from the Priyanka camp to Rahul.

The siblings and their mother may have a perfectly harmonious relationship, but for ordinary party members, such signals are significant. Congress members prefer an “active” Rahul to a somewhat reluctant Priyanka. Highly-placed sources said Rahul may not formally join the Congress yet, but would be entering politics ahead of his younger and more sought-after sister Priyanka.

The Himachal victory has triggered a chain reaction. It coincided with an appraisal session in Bhopal where the “high command” is planning to interview all 128 MLAs tomorrow and prepare a report card that would make or mar their prospects of being nominated. Sonia has already started this exercise, though Assembly polls are scheduled for November-December 2003.

AICC general secretary Ambika Soni, who came to Bhopal with Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Arjun Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, sought to underplay the appraisal session. They pointed out that it was an ongoing exercise.

However, for a majority of party MLAs, the Himachal victory has strengthened the central leadership. Sonia will now have a chance to deny them tickets, say many Congress MLAs, instead of opting for a “quota system” where regional satraps like Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath and Arjun Singh are given tickets for their favourites in accordance with their stature in the AICC.

But the exercise is unlikely to reflect adversely on Digvijay Singh, who is ranked highly by Sonia among the chief ministers of party-ruled states. In Congress circles, Digvijay is considered the “captain” of a team of 14 chief ministers, which is likely to go up to 16 even if S.C. Jamir fails to retain Nagaland.

The Bhopal conclave is aimed at assessing the Congress’ strengths and weaknesses for the coming Assembly polls. The general complaint is that, while the state may be doing well, the party is not able to cash in on the “good work”.

A section of the state Congress is bitter about the way the government is functioning. The disgruntled members point to the poor state of roads, as well as the shortage of water and power.

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