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Sonia show sends Vajpayee’s team to the backroom
- Prime Minister convenes unscheduled meeting of allies to discuss strategy for general elections

New Delhi, March 30: Sonia Gandhi’s serial appearances on the political centre-stage have sent the stars of the BJP-led coalition back to the rehearsal room.

A few hours after Sonia this morning addressed a huge rally that outshone the NDA government’s five-year jamboree yesterday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee convened an unscheduled meeting of the bigger components of the coalition.

The meeting that went on for several hours is being seen as a pre-election strategy session that discussed ways to blunt the perceived advantage of Sonia after the BJP’s poor performance in the recent round of Assembly polls.

The political temperature is expected to rise in the coming days with elections to several key states scheduled for the end of this year and the general elections next year. Sonia, who had set her political roadshow rolling on Friday by convening a maiden session of the Congress’ leaders, today virtually launched the campaign for Election 2004. ( )

At the NDA meeting at Vajpayee’s residence, apart from the Prime Minister, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, NDA convener George Fernandes, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu, finance minister Jaswant Singh, law minister Arun Jaitley, parliamentary affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and BJP general secretaries Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh were present. The allies were represented by Trinamul Congress’ Mamata Banerjee, Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav, Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, DMK leader T.R. Baalu and railway minister Nitish Kumar. The Prime Minister told the leaders to identify issues concerning people and hardsell the government’s achievements to the electorate. The allies were also asked to sink differences.

Development and the need to project a positive image dominated the agenda of the meeting, which began at 11 am and continued till 5 pm. “We want a larger mandate from the people than what we got last time. Development will be our main issue,” the BJP president said. Mahajan, who was dropped as information and technology minister in the last reshuffle, expressed unhappiness about the NDA’s failure to project the government’s achievements.

The unusual length of the meeting fuelled speculation that the Centre is considering a proposal to advance the general elections to January 2004.

The BJP leadership has already initiated a process of consultation with the allies. Vajpayee had a round of talks with Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu in Delhi last month. Naidu is understood to have suggested advancing the general elections as he does not want simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. The Andhra Assembly polls are due in October-November 2004. Seven major allies were invited to today’s session. The rest will be called in the next round.

The issues that were raised today also reflected the allies’ concern to address “vote-sensitive” areas. Mamata wanted disinvestment to be stopped and she raised the VAT issue, over which traders — considered a votebank of the BJP — have called a strike. Defending the Centre, the finance minister said it was up to the states to implement it.

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