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Sheepish Shinde plays it cool

New Delhi, Oct. 1: The Solapur and Ernakulam bypoll blows have awakened the Congress to the twin challenges of managing inner-party bickering and its allies.

Preoccupied with preparations for Assembly elections in the five states later this year, the leadership has been jolted by the “unexpected” bypoll debacle at a highly inappropriate time.

Maharashtra chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who arrived here on summons from the central leadership to explain the Solapur defeat, met party chief Sonia Gandhi for nearly an hour today. Emerging out of the meeting, Shinde downplayed the defeat and reports about its causes.

“Since the byelection is only for 10 months, not much meaning should be derived from its outcome,” Shinde told newsmen.

He declined comment on reports that the Nationalist Congress Party had worked against the Congress nominee since none of its leaders, including Sharad Pawar, had campaigned for the party. Any comment would have to await the detailed analysis of the result, which would take some time, he said.

Shinde, however, asserted that there was neither a case for his resignation nor had it been sought by the party leadership. On whether the poll outcome would affect his party’s alliance with the NCP, the chief minister said it was premature to say anything.

Sources at the party headquarters said intra-party rivalries that refused to die down even after Shinde replaced Vilasrao Deshmukh as chief minister and the state of Congress-NCP relations came up for discussion during Shinde’s meeting with Sonia. Apparently, the powerful Maratha lobby within the party had not put its weight behind the Solapur nominee.

While Sonia discussed Solapur with Shinde, the party high command seems clueless about its approach to deal with the Ernakulam debacle.

There has been no move yet to summon Kerala chief minister A.K. Antony. Neither has there been any indication of disciplinary action against rebel leader K. Karunakaran or his son and state unit chief K. Muraleedharan, though before the results were announced the leadership had resolved to wield the stick.

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