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Rebels to meet Sonia

Bhubaneswar, June 23: An attempt to forge unity in the Orissa Congress has proved a non-starter with dissident party workers renewing efforts to dislodge state unit chief Sarat Patnaik.

On June 7, Sonia Gandhi visited Bhubaneswar to restore unity in the state Congress and urged party workers during her rally here to sink their differences. But Sarat baiters have continued efforts to have the Orissa chief replaced.

Yesterday, more than 50 dissident workers headed to New Delhi to urge the Congress president to replace Sarat. The delegation included Orissa Youth Congress chief Ranjib Biswal, known to be a Sarat supporter. Many former ministers, district Congress chiefs and MLAs are also part of the group.

The dissidents, who are to meet Sonia tomorrow morning, will inform her about the growing schism in the state unit.

The rebels grouped at the residence of former chief minister J.B. Patnaik, who has been waiting on the sidelines to strike at the Orissa Congress chief.

With senior leaders like Hemanand Biswal and former deputy chief minister Basant Kumar Biswal ganging up against Sarat, the beleaguered party chief may find it difficult to ward off the challenge to his authority. Not one to sit back, Sarat has also rushed to Delhi to limit the damage.

Sources said the dissidents would tell Sonia a change of guard was necessary in view of the coming municipal elections. During Saratís one-and-a-half-year tenure as Orissa chief, the Congress has lost three byelections. The rebels will argue that Sarat is not capable of guiding the party to victory in the municipal polls.

The dissidentsí move to begin their offensive so soon after Sonia urged them to remain united has raised eyebrows. But with the rebels undecided on who should succeed Sarat if he were to be sacked, it is unlikely that the Congress president will agree to their request. There are at least 10 candidates in the fray to replace Sarat, including Patnaik, and this may help the Orissa chief cling on to his chair.

If the rebels manage to dislodge Sarat, it will be a second snub for Sonia. In 1999, she had replaced Patnaik as chief minister with Giridhar Gamang. But the latter had to go after dissidents revolted over his poor handling of relief operations following the supercyclone in the state.

A rebel has said that if the party high command does not replace Sarat, they will step up their dissidence.

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