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Cong shields top guns from Gujarat blow

New Delhi, Dec. 24: Heads will not be rolling in the Congress for the Gujarat rout, at least not immediately.

True to tradition, the top brass will be insulated from blame. Efforts are on to distance Sonia Gandhi from the “shock” verdict and play down the impact her “maut ke saudagaron (merchants of death)” epithet had on the results.

Party officials claimed that the contradictory statements by spokespersons had caused more damage than Sonia’s “passing” remark.

Sources also underplayed Rahul’s roadshows, saying he was “hardly there for a couple of days”.

Nobody spoke a word on the role played by Sonia’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, the chief strategist for the polls. Patel, who is from south Gujarat, had plunged into the preparations a little over a year ago.

Digvijay Singh, a general secretary who had been asked to look after central Gujarat, shifted the responsibility to the “local leadership”, saying the polls “revolved around state issues”.

He was silent when asked if he would include Patel and central ministers Shankersinh Vaghela and Dinsha Patel, who also belong to Gujarat, among the “local leaders”.

Congress sources suggested that “at no stage” had Sonia shared the optimism of her general secretaries and Gujarat leaders.

“She was reluctant to believe us when we told her the Congress would cross 90. Her view was: let us wait for the outcome. Perhaps she was privy to more inputs than we were,” a Gujarat leader said.

This evening, Sonia and her colleagues had their first “introspective” meeting, attended by central ministers and members of the party’s “Friday Club”: Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, A.K. Antony.

Patel, Digvijay, B.K. Hariprasad, Mukul Wasnik (who looked after Gujarat affairs), Prithviraj Chavan, Vaghela, Dinsha and Gujarat Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki were present, too. The nearly two-hour-long meeting took everyone’s “first-cut reactions” without going into the specifics.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who attended most of the sessions on candidate selection and campaigned vigorously, stayed away although he is part of the core committee.

Singh has reportedly immersed himself in the budget preparations.

The central functionaries involved in Gujarat reportedly offered to resign but their offers were brushed away.

Sonia asked them to “reflect seriously on what went wrong”, especially in Saurashtra and north Gujarat which sealed the Congress’s fate.

She was also reportedly concerned about what the Congress’s fifth consecutive defeat might do to the workers’ morale and what impact Modi’s victory might have on the coming polls in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh.

It was decided that a comprehensive report would be prepared with inputs from block and district units before the causes were identified.

The Congress’s initial assessment was that Modi played the “communal card” with “single-minded determination” from the first day of the campaign.

“Our handicap was that we didn’t have a demagogue to counter his speeches on how the two-rupee coin was redesigned to carry a cross and why the Centre was not hanging Afzal Guru,” a central functionary said.

“When we took him on over development, he was on the run. Then he plucked the ‘maut ke saudagaron’ out of Sonia Gandhi’s speech. We got confused and blinked.

“There was nothing outrageous about what she said because our local leaders had said worse things about him. But he equated himself with the PM and Sonia and we didn’t have a counter.”

The party’s biggest worry is what would happen if Modi shifts to Delhi. Sources said the Congress would have to sort out its “ideological dilemmas” on Hindutva and reforms, because the party feels Modi has managed to wed the two strands successfully in his persona and politics.

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