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Sonia salvo: Elections anyone'
- ‘Prime Minister candidate’ cites seven pillars of failure

Shimla, July 7: Listing seven sins of the “merchants of hate” in power, Sonia Gandhi today spoiled for a fight “any time, this year or next”.

“Let me make it absolutely clear here and now that the Congress stands fully prepared, stands ready at any time, this year or next. Not only that, I am convinced that t he people of the country, too, would welcome an opportunity, sooner than later, to decisively reject the BJP-led NDA government,” she told the party’s brainstorming camp in this hill station.

The party responded to the call to polls with unusual alacrity, officially confirming that she is its candidate for Prime Minister. Congress chief spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy told reporters that the party would have no hesitation in naming Sonia the prime ministerial candidate. Reddy’s statement came despite her suggestion that the purpose of the brainstorming session was to “deliberate on ideas, not discuss individuals”.

Sonia’s challenge has put the ball in the court of the BJP, which had indicated at its chintan baithak — the Congress has borrowed from the same lexicon to christen its session vichar manthan shivir — near Mumbai last month that general elections would be held as scheduled in October 2004.

Sonia asserted that the time was ripe for the Congress to “reclaim” its rightful place at the helm and said people were again looking up to her party which she described as the only secular, pan-Indian organisation which enjoys support among every social segment.

In her assault on the BJP-led government, the Congress chief specifically named deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and finance minister Jaswant Singh. But her 45-minute address had no mention of the BJP’s coalition allies, let alone a critical reference.

Sonia avoided elaborating on her party’s thinking on economic reforms — a factor that could put off potential allies. Nor did she even once refer to what her party’s approach would be to forming alliances, one of the key issues on the agenda of the camp.

The Opposition leader’s attack on the government centred on what she called seven miserable failures. Sonia said the government had failed to protect people and promote national security, inflicted grievous damage to the country’s secular fabric and failed to build on the strengths of the economy bequeathed to it by previous Congress regimes.

The other counts on which she faulted the government included neglect of rural economy, which had led to hardship for farmers, destruction of national consensus on foreign policy issues and failure to evolve an effective Pakistan policy, inability to tackle cross-border terrorism and failure to check corruption.

The Congress chief said corruption had become commonplace in the defence establishment under the NDA government. Further, she alleged that budget allocations were not being utilised for defence modernisation and tax collected specifically for the purpose was being diverted.

She said scandals had crossed all limits, be it in defence, petrol pump allocation and cooperative banks.

Sonia blasted the BJP and Sangh parivar associates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal for deliberately distorting Hinduism and the liberal Hindu way of life.

On sending troops to war-ravaged Iraq, she said the Congress will not support the government without an explicit mandate from the UN.

The Congress chief asserted that her party was the only political force in the country that has consistently defended secularism against attacks by the “merchants of hate”. Her party, she said, intends to set up a “Bapu Sadbhavna and Shiksha Trust” to counter the RSS-controlled Shiksha Bharti and other institutions that operate to attract “impressionable minds”.

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