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Sonia shines in the dark

Hissar, Feb. 26: It was past 11 at night on Wednesday as Sonia Gandhi’s motorcade reached this Haryana heartland town for an overnight halt. She was at least three hours behind schedule.

The Special Protection Group providing cover to the Congress chief must have experienced some nervous moments for its manual discourages late-night VVIP travel in unfamiliar territory. Sonia’s long forays across the rural stretches in pitch-blackness could have been a security nightmare.

But as the battle for the 14th Lok Sabha gathers steam, the Congress’ star campaigner could well be tempted to undertake more such night journeys.

Sonia’s roadshow was worth the 14 hours she was on the road at a stretch, traversing 300 km from the industrial town of Faridabad on Delhi’s outskirts to Hissar.

The roadshow has provided the Congress campaign a big boost. Be it towns or small villages, people lined up enthusiastically in large numbers to catch a glimpse of the Congress leader. The crowd grew thicker and the motorcade longer with each passing hour.

By the evening, the roadshow wore a festive look, with local Congress leaders having erected welcome-arches for the motorcade everywhere. In the rush of party vehicles keen to join the slow-moving motorcade, a back-up BMW and jammer vehicle were left behind. The sidelights of many cars were smashed in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But hardly any Congress member complained; for party workers, Sonia’s roadshow was a festive occasion — road rage could wait for another day.

There was a significant aspect to the roadshow, which will greatly relieve the party. Following Sonia’s BMW safari all through the two-day event was a Mercedes. Seated in the rear of the white Mercedes was the Congress’ Haryana triumvirate: state unit chief and former chief minister Bhajan Lal, legislature party leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda and senior leader Virender Singh.

The leaders’ presence was a rare show of unity that could lend the state unit the belief that it can fight a big electoral battle. Until recently, the three leaders had spent more time in running each other down instead of strengthening the Congress.

Sonia’s roadshow is a clear notice to Congress’ rivals in the contest for Haryana’s 10 Lok Sabha seats, political watchers reckon. Chief minister and Indian National Lok Dal president Om Prakash Chautala, in particular, may find himself on the backfoot.

His government may have put up pre-poll publicity hoardings across Haryana that boast self-congratulatory one-liners like: “Jo kaha, vahi kiya (We’ve delivered what we promised).” But Chautala is vulnerable to the state Congress’s BSP (bijli, sadak aur pani) campaign.

The road network in Haryana is in a poor state. As a political observer here said: “While Sonia’s roadshow is a success, Chautala does not have a single road to show for his government’s achievements.” Just as he was a political liability to his father Devi Lal during the hey-day of the Janata Dal and the National Front in the late 1980s, Chautala is now discovering that his son Ajay might weigh the Lok Dal down in days to come.

Chautala is sure to play the Jat card to ensure success in the elections. But the perceived anti-incumbency factor has already cost him his ally, the BJP. The latter may have quit the alliance, but is yet to show it has taken roots in rural Haryana.

The BJP’s decision to seemingly go it alone appears rather bullish, going by the enthusiastic response Sonia has got. The decision will be put to the test during the fortnight when party leaders go on a whirlwind tour of the state to counter the Sonia roadshow.

Haryana Vikas Party leader Bansi Lal might have fancied his chances of seizing upon Chautala’s woes to stage a political comeback. But the veteran former chief minister would be none too happy to hear that residents of his Tosham constituency, near Bhiwani, turned up in huge numbers to greet Sonia.

With all major players signalling their intention to fight the Lok Sabha elections alone, the Congress will be hoping it can ride the Sonia show to sweep all 10 seats. This would help undo the disappointment of the 1999 elections, when it drew a blank.

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