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To Panchmarhi, horns locked

Panchmarhi, May 26: In September 1998, Sonia Gandhi had made a promise at Panchmarhi — that she would make the Congress a party of the “best and brightest” and it would regain its primacy in national politics. She followed it up with spectacular victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Today, almost five years later, the venue is the same but the euphoria of ’98 has virtually evaporated, with a bitter turf war taking its place.

On the face of it, Ambika Soni, Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia — some of whom had hailed Sonia as a “saviour” last time — are gathering in Panchmarhi to prepare the party for an ensuing electoral battle in Madhya Pradesh. But behind the pleasantries lies a hidden agenda that ranges from settling political scores to projecting themselves as “madam’s eyes and ears”.

The Arjun Singh camp is itching to take on Soni and Kamal Nath, two AICC general secretaries who they believe are “crippling the feel-good factor” created by Sonia’s leadership.

Their list of grievances is long. They hold Soni and the leaders surrounding the Congress president responsible for delaying and blocking the return of influential leaders like P. Chidambaram, Sanjay Singh, Arif Mohammad Khan and Udit Raj.

Arjun Singh’s supporters are also critical of the way senior leaders like K. Karunakaran, Vidya Charan Shukla and C.K. Jaffer Sharief have been treated. The central leadership made little attempt to prevail upon Shukla, they say, adding that Shukla will cause considerable damage in election-bound Chhattisgarh.

The Arjun Singh camp is, however, categorical that its reservations about some AICC functionaries have nothing to do with Sonia’s leadership. Arjun Singh’s real objective, his supporters say, is to make everyone aware of the “cancer” of groupism that is eating into the party. They feel the Congress’ biggest enemy in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh is factionalism within the state units at the expense of party prospects.

At the national level, too, his supporters are worried about the 2004 elections. The Congress organisational network in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Tamil Nadu has slipped from bad to worse.

If the party fails to be an effective challenger in as many as 222 Lok Sabha seats, it cannot hope to get the 250-odd parliamentary seats from the remaining 321. In such a scenario, the Congress’ likely tally ranging from 140-170 MPs will be extremely detrimental to Sonia’s prime ministerial aspirations.

At a personal level, too, Arjun Singh has reason to be upset. Having fought a protracted battle against P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, he and his colleagues, including Sheila Dixit, M.. Fotedar, K. Natwar Singh, Mohsina Kidwai and P. Shiv Shankar, who belonged to the erstwhile Congress (T) headed by Narain Dutt Tiwari, perhaps, expected a preferential treatment in Sonia’s Congress. Sonia’s desire to be even-handed and her growing reliance on Soni, Kamal Nath, Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid has not gone down well with the ‘T’ group.

However, the absence of Congress stalwarts like Sharad Pawar, Madhavrao Scindia, Jitendra Prasada, Rajesh Pilot and P.A. Sangma has not helped Sonia either. The balance of power in the Congress Working Committee that existed in September 1998 is now missing.

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