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Sonia nips candidate cry

- Rahul to lead campaign but without label

New Delhi, Jan. 16: The Congress today chorused that Rahul Gandhi be declared the candidate for Prime Minister but an angry Sonia Gandhi intervened to ask why the leaders were mimicking the BJP and not honouring “tradition”.

Almost demonstrating a sense of exasperation, Sonia asked the Congress Working Committee without naming the BJP: “Why is this noise about PM candidate? One party does it and we now want to follow that. We have a tradition for decades…. MPs choose their leader in the Lok Sabha. I am hearing this debate in our party for a long time. I wonder why nobody is speaking on the agenda of the AICC session.”

By then, senior leaders like Ramesh Chennithala, B.K. Hariprasad, Gurudas Kamat, Bhubaneswar Kalita, Rajeev Satav and Ghulam Nabi Azad had dwelt on the need for declaring Rahul as the candidate for Prime Minister.

They contended that the decision was badly required to motivate the workers and give a face to the campaign against the rival leader.

But Sonia strongly disapproved of the Prime Minister-centric discourse that had drowned issues of people’s concerns.

At this point, Bengal Congress chief Pradip Bhattacharya got up to say: “Madam, we accept what you say but there should be clarity about the leadership. We must include a line in the resolution that Rahulji will lead the Congress campaign.”

True to tradition, the Bengal leader drew loud cheers and most of those who had demanded declaration of Rahul as the Prime Minister candidate supported him.

Azad contended: “Madam, there has been a tradition that the Congress does not declare the PM candidate but in changing times and circumstances, traditions can change.”

Sonia did not relent but agreed to add a line in the resolution: “This meeting of the AICC declares that the 2014 election campaign will be led by Rahul Gandhi.”

There will be one omnibus resolution at the AICC meeting tomorrow but the discourse will now be dominated by this single line which settles the question of leadership. There won’t be any doubt in the minds of the party workers henceforth as to who their prime ministerial candidate is, although the Congress will not have a PM-in-waiting.

When other leaders tried to raise the question subsequently, they were told not to do so as the issue had been settled.

Rahul didn’t comment on his mother’s ruling but echoed her by saying “I am a dedicated Congress worker” and would do “whatever the party” expected of him.

In a subtle admission of the responsibility of leading the Congress in the election, he said: “The Congress ideology is under attack and I am committed to protecting it. I will do whatever is required to strengthen the Congress.” The reference to the Congress ideology being under attack is being viewed as a reference to Narendra Modi.

The battlelines are now clearly drawn and the 2014 election is going to be a Rahul-versus-Modi clash. If anybody still had a doubt about Rahul’s role, what party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said after the CWC meeting should come as a further elucidation.

He said: “Everybody knows the future leadership is with Rahul. ‘Who is the Prime Minister candidate?’ is a needless question. We announced Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister candidate before the polls in 2009 only because he was already Prime Minister. Otherwise, we never declare a candidate.”

Asked about the BJP’s charge that Rahul was running away from responsibility, Dwivedi said: “I don’t want to comment on the ignorance of our rivals. Where was the question of PM candidate during Nehru’s time? Who asked for our PM candidate when Indira Gandhi fought elections? In 2004, the election was fought under Sonia’s leadership but we had not announced her as PM candidate. We elected her as PM after the polls but she refused to accept.

“It becomes necessary to declare the PM candidate when there is competition, rancour, dispute, fight… not where there is unanimity. We all know who would be our PM candidate.”

In the run-up to the 2009 general election and much after that, Congress leaders used to make fun of L.K. Advani as “PM-in-waiting” and many of them felt this tag reflected a sense of desperation. Many leaders tonight claimed that Rahul was ready for any responsibility but Sonia felt that declaring the candidate before the election was an oddity.

The key question was of leadership and two vital steps ensured clarity: the announcement by Manmohan Singh that he would not seek a third term and that Rahul would lead the election campaign.