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Sonia hands dynasty mantle to son

March 21: It’s Rahul first, not Priyanka.

The biggest riddle in Indian politics since Sonia Gandhi’s takeover of the Congress was solved today with the party announcing the candidature of her son in Elections 2004.

Rahul Gandhi, the first member of the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhis to contest, will make his debut from Amethi — in the footsteps of both his parents and uncle Sanjay Gandhi. Sonia has vacated the seat and moved to neighbouring Rae Bareli, once held by mother-in-law Indira Gandhi.

If the debutant’s battlefield was chosen with care, so was the date of the declaration, despite the coincidental clash of the moment with the exploits of another Rahul in Pakistan, where the Nehru-Gandhi scions were a little over a week ago to witness a much bigger cliffhanger.

Sunday was new year’s day in the south and the beginning of Navratri in the north — both rich in symbolism and ideal to bolster Rahul’s Indian credentials just when the BJP has reverted to taking swipes at Sonia’s foreign origin. Ever eager to hold aloft the secular mantle, Congress leaders also pointed out that Sunday was the first day after the end of the Muharram month of mourning in Jammu and Kashmir.

The decision to enter politics through the family gateway — Indira Gandhi chose Rae Bareli while Sanjay, Rajiv and Sonia opted for the neighbouring Amethi — was not the sole common factor.

The circumstances that put the mantle on each generation of the dynasty are somewhat similar. Indira took the decisive step to help an ailing Jawaharlal Nehru and fill the vacuum at the top when the time came. Sanjay was groomed for the role but his untimely death prompted Rajiv to step forward and stand by Indira. The assassination of Rajiv and the party’s slide forced Sonia to do the rescue act.

History has repeated itself with Rahul being called to save the party. But never before has the Congress faced a graver crisis of confidence than now with most workers resigning themselves to bleak prospects in the coming polls. The immediate challenge before Rahul and Sonia will be to see whether his entry can be used to electrify the rank and file of the Congress.

That task brings to the forefront a question that many a Congress worker is asking: why not Priyanka' The sister — the favourite subject of resolutions Congress workers pass whenever the party is in trouble — is seen as the more charismatic of the siblings.

Moments after general secretary Ambika Soni announced Rahul’s candidature, Sonia was besieged with a demand to field Priyanka from the south — Bellary, to be precise, from where the mother had contested and won. Though not ruling out the possibility, a source said: “That decision has not been taken. But she would most certainly tour all over the country to mobilise support for the party.”

Congress members in Uttar Pradesh gloated over Sonia’s “Indian-ness” — in fielding a male member of the family. “Our tradition is that the male is given preference and Soniaji has done exactly the same,” a former minister said, insisting that this would help her neutralise the BJP’s renewed campaign on her foreign origin.

10 Janpath trashed the “male preference” theory but acknowledged Sonia’s keenness to always place Rahul on a par with Priyanka. Rahul, though largely acceptable to party workers, has seldom managed to get the same degree of affection.

Faced with the prospect of going it alone in Uttar Pradesh after it failed to strike an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress is banking on the “family magic” to lift the party in the state. “Rahul’s decision to fight from Amethi will have a positive domino effect all over the state,” said a senior party leader from Uttar Pradesh.

Sources close to Sonia said Rahul’s entry into electoral politics is part of a “family arrangement”, in which Priyanka is said to have advised her elder brother to contest from Amethi. Sonia readily agreed, given Priyanka’s “extrovert” nature and her ability to attract voters across the country — which could be put to good use during the slog overs of campaigning.

The siblings were said to have firmed up their minds about a more active role in politics after BJP leader Vinay Katiyar said they should call “his bluff” and take the matter (of their origin) to the “people’s court”.

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