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Cong faces 45-seat test

- 2009 victory margin too close for comfort

New Delhi, April 1: Mohammed Azharuddin has a battle on his hands. Defending 317 is too close for comfort.

No, the former captain has not stepped back on a cricket field. What he has been asked to do is deliver a seat where his party barely managed to squeeze past in the last election.

Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, in Rajasthan, is among 45 seats where the Congress should be bracing for a tough fight, if the past is anything to go by. The party had won in all these seats in the 2009 general election but it was a narrow squeak: the constituencies are among 114 where the margin of victory was less than three per cent.

The lowest in terms of votes was in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, where Union minister of state for finance Namo Narain Meena beat Kirori Singh Bainsla of the BJP by a margin of just 317.

This time, Meena has shifted to what he thinks is a safer seat — Dausa — where he faces his brother, Harish Meena, of the BJP. As for Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, it’s Azhar’s baby now.

Meena wasn’t the only minister who scraped through last time. Among the Congress candidates who won in these 45 seats, nine are sitting ministers, including heavyweights like P. Chidambaram.

CLOSE CALL
Some Congress heavyweights whose victory margin was less than 3 per cent in 2009

• P. Chidambaram

• Mallikarjun Kharge

• Kumari Selja

• Subodh Kant Sahay

• Dinsha Patel

The finance minister, who won by 3,354 votes from Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, has opted out of the 2014 race, vacating the seat for son Karti.

If Chidambaram and Meena had a choice, minister of state Santosh Chowdhary, who won from Hoshiarpur (Punjab) by a margin of just 366 votes, did not. The Congress leadership has this time fielded her from Jalandhar. According to sources, she is being punished for her performance during the last Assembly elections in Punjab, where the BJP ally Akali Dal reigns.

Chowdhary is among 10 sitting MPs from the 45 closely fought seats to have been replaced by the Congress, which has so far announced candidates in 39. She is also the only minister to have been shifted despite protests. The others have not been touched. “How can you replace a sitting minister even if you know that he might lose?” said a senior party leader. “It would send a wrong message.”

In many of these seats, the party didn’t have too many options. For example, mines minister Dinsha Patel, who won from Kheda, in Gujarat, by just 846 votes has been re-nominated. “In Gujarat, we do not anyway have many prominent faces to project, so we have to go with people who have delivered in the past,” the leader added.

Former tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay, who won the last election by a margin of 1.08 per cent votes, also survived the seat shuffle. Sahay, whose name had figured in the coal block controversy, was not on the first list but the party later decided to field him again from Ranchi.

Railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge, who won from Gulbarga in Karnataka by a margin of 1.7 per cent, has also been re-nominated.

Sources said Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is often armed with surveys by professional agencies on the prospects of candidates, favours fielding new faces but ran into resistance from other leaders.

In some of the 10 seats where the Congress has fielded new faces, the replacements followed requests from the candidates themselves. For instance, former housing minister Kumari Selja, who won from Ambala by a margin of 1.68 per cent votes and was on a sticky wicket this time too, has managed to get a Rajya Sabha berth.

In Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir, sitting MP Chaudhary Lal Singh has not been re-nominated as Congress veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad will contest from there.

“The 2014 tickets have been given on reassessment. No party gives tickets to lose. Winnability is not the only supreme test factor,” said spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. So is “basic self-preservation”.

The BJP is licking its lips. “We are going to win, not just the easy seats but the tough and tougher ones too,” spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said.