The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Early election headache for Sonia
Maharashtra woe for Cong

New Delhi, Jan. 2: With the prospect of early Lok Sabha elections looming large, the Congress is in a spot over whether to hold simultaneous polls in the crucial states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The last Assembly polls in the two Congress-ruled states — as in Andhra Pradesh — were held along with the Lok Sabha elections in September-October 1999. So the party can wait till October before seeking a fresh mandate in the two states.

However, in Maharashtra, its Nationalist Congress Party ally is pressing the Congress leadership for early polls. NCP chief Sharad Pawar is believed to have informed chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde that his party would like to bring forward Assembly polls if the Lok Sabha elections are advanced.

But the Congress central leadership, said sources, is wary of early Assembly polls. It believes the party is not in the best position to gain by advancing the polls. Partly, the fear is rooted in the prevailing uncertainty about a pre-poll seat-sharing arrangement with the NCP.

Senior party functionaries believe that by not advancing the Assembly elections to coincide with possible early parliamentary polls, the Congress might have a better chance of keeping its alliance with the NCP intact in the state. It might also minimise the probability of Pawar moving away from the Congress camp at the national level.

A decision on advancing Assembly polls might also depend on the ability of the two parties to strike mutually acceptable seat-sharing deals, sources indicated. Pawar has declared his intention to be a hard bargainer through his statement today that joining the NDA was also an option before his party.

Should Pawar opt to align with the NDA for the parliamentary polls, the Shinde government will fall. Assembly polls will then take place with general elections, regardless of whether the Congress wants it that way or not.

Karnataka’s case is, however, different. Till recently, the state Congress unit was in favour of advancing Assembly polls if Lok Sabha elections were brought forward. It reckoned that the party would benefit from early polls since the various Janata Dal factions were finding it difficult to reunite despite persistent efforts. But it is not so certain now, particularly in the wake of the Congress’ heartland debacle.

Chief minister S.M. Krishna is reported to be contemplating Assembly polls in September-October, as scheduled. The party high command, the sources said, has not yet considered the issue.

But it will have to decide whether it is practical to fight two elections in the state in four months if the Lok Sabha polls are advanced. Besides, most of the party’s Lok Sabha members are understood to have conveyed to Sonia Gandhi that they prefer simultaneous polls. “Otherwise, party MLAs tend to be indifferent campaigners in the Lok Sabha polls,” the MPs are said to have told the Congress chief.

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