The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Congress shies off Sonia vs Atal battle

New Delhi, June 29: The Congress may not bill the coming Lok Sabha elections as a contest between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The think-tank, which keenly followed the recent controversy over Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani being named as twin BJP mascots, does not think a battle of personalities will give the Congress any tactical advantage.

“There is no doubt that Sonia is our leader. But we may consciously prefer not to project the next election as a Sonia-versus-Atal contest for prime ministership,” said a senior party leader.

The Congress, the leader pointed out, has never projected its prime ministerial candidates, though there were no doubts about their identity during the tenure of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

The party think-tank is currently debating its election strategy. Senior leaders feel the leadership must have a clear idea about poll strategies to be adopted ahead of the Shimla brainstorming session that begins on July 7.

An apex co-ordination committee set up by the Congress president to finalise papers on political, economic, social and other policy matters is meeting almost daily to deliberate on strategy. “It is important that the broad approach the party will adopt for the polls runs through various position papers,” party sources said.

They added that the party would have to do more than just reiterate its willingness to forge coalitions. If the Congress strikes pre-poll alliances, it is necessary to prepare party workers for it, sources said.

“Unlike other parties, including the BJP, it is not easy for the Congress to leave seats to alliance partners in a large number of states where we have strong organisational presence. Barring a few big states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Congress is the primary contestant in most others,” sources said.

If the Congress shares seats in these states, it might cause problems within the party. The organisation needs to be sure that tie-ups do not cause internal problems.

As the leadership is averse to running a personality-based campaign, issues that the Congress will focus on have to be identified. The party position has to be spelt out at the Shimla session, the sources said. “The objective is to build an issue based campaign,” they added.

The Congress and the BJP appear to have similar views on governance, economic reforms and foreign policy, though they differ sharply on the latter’s Hindutva plank. The task at Shimla will be to prove the parties are different and that the Congress is the better alternative.

“We have to analyse whether soft Hindutva can really help the Congress. The brainstorming session will be the occasion to undertake this exercise,” sources said.

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