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MP option in Cong CM hunt

Guwahati, April 13: If not Tarun Gogoi, who'

A consensus is building up in the Assam Congress to anoint an MP as the chief minister if the party returns to power for a second consecutive term.

Jorhat MP Bijoy Krishna Handique, who is the Union minister of state for chemicals and fertilisers, has emerged as the frontrunner for the chief ministership with several senior leaders opposed to the idea of giving Gogoi the reins again.

Many within the Congress believe Gogoi alienated its traditional support base ' the minorities and the tea tribes ' and marginalised senior leaders to the party’s detriment.

PCC chief Bhubaneswar Kalita is also in the reckoning for the hot seat but is neither acceptable to all party leaders from Upper Assam, nor has a strong lobby to swing things in his favour.

“He appears to be the next choice if Gogoi is not retained, but it is not as straight as it appears. Kalita will have to pull a lot of strings in the one month he has in hand,” a senior PCC office-bearer said.

He said senior party leaders like Debananda Konwar and Sarat Barkatoky could also come into the picture, never mind the fact that both have been low-key since being dropped from the Gogoi ministry during the downsizing exercise in 2004.

Considering the acceptability factor and predictions of a hung House, the AICC is said to be mulling a “consensus candidate” and Handique, a Lok Sabha MP since 1991, is the hot favourite because of his “clean image”. The same criteria had been applied when Gogoi came in to lead the party in 2001.

Congress insiders said the AICC started searching for an alternative after getting “negative” reports from its observers.

“They were really taken aback by the support the nascent Assam United Democratic Front enjoyed, irrespective of how many seats the party wins. Asking Gogoi to continue would mean further erosion of minority support,” one of them said.

He claimed that a couple of ministers close to Gogoi suggested Handique as a replacement to AICC leader Digvijay Singh while he was campaigning in Assam. Handique is not only close to Gogoi, but he hails from the same district, Jorhat, as the chief minister.

However, the Union minister denied being a contender for the chief minister’s chair. “I have heard such things but I am certainly not in the race...I am not interested in state politics,” he said. “I am also close to Gogoi,” he added.

But a source said Handique would have no choice if the high command were to ask him to take the job.

Notwithstanding the search for a replacement, Gogoi very much remains in the frame.

But his chances of actually being retained depend on whether the Congress gets an absolute majority and most of his acolytes return to the Assembly to swing the legislature party in his favour.

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