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Cong listens to ground voices

- Leaders told not to insist on tickets only for sitting lawmakers in upcoming state polls

New Delhi, Aug. 23: The Congress leadership has at last agreed to give due importance to inputs from the ground while selecting candidates.

Sources said all general secretaries have been told not to insist on handing tickets to only “sitting” legislators as ignoring the message from the grassroots had hurt the party badly in recent elections.

Most senior leaders had advocated and even fought for tickets for sitting MLAs and MPs in the recent state polls and the summer elections to Parliament against the wishes of Rahul Gandhi, who preferred picking candidates on the basis of ground surveys.

The Congress vice-president had to give up under pressure from party chief ministers, general secretaries and leaders who felt sitting legislators were best placed to win despite local-level anti-incumbency.

Now, there is a growing feeling among the leaders that even party workers lose interest in elections if sitting MLAs and MPs are allowed to treat their constituencies as personal fiefs.

In the coming round of Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, there is a possibility of a number of new faces, no matter how entrenched the sitting legislators are.

While the AICC sent observers to each constituency for independent political inputs, reports from the state election committees and professional agencies were also sought. District and state units were conveyed that undue weight should not be given to sitting MLAs.

The 2013 Assembly elections in Delhi were an example of how the decision to field sitting legislators backfired.

While the Congress appeared doomed to lose, chief minister Sheila Dikshit insisted on fielding all the sitting MLAs, although an internal survey suggested half of them were extremely unpopular. The Congress ended up with eight seats in the 70-member House.

In the Chhattisgarh elections too last year, Rahul wanted several sitting MLAs to be dropped because surveys had hinted they could lose, but local leaders resisted the move.

The Congress lost by a few seats as 27 of the 37 sitting MLAs were defeated. Now most leaders believe the state could have been wrested from the BJP had Rahul’s suggestion been accepted. The Congress won 39 seats, six fewer than the majority mark of 45.

In the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had fielded most of its sitting MPs.

There is a general belief in most parties that sitting MLAs and MPs, with their deep connect in their constituencies, can sabotage the prospects of any other candidate fielded by their parties. So, the best option is to field them again.

The leadership has now realised that this factor has been grossly overstated as unpopular representatives have usually limited damage potential and that, too, among party workers, not general voters.

Rahul had initially proposed that no MLA or MP should be repeated after two terms and new workers should be given a chance to come up. But the real problem in the party is the capacity of local leaders to mislead Sonia Gandhi and Rahul and even blackmail the high command.

There are regional satraps who don’t allow talented and hardworking leaders to emerge and promote only loyalists to keep control over their fiefs. They would rather lose a seat than let rivals within the party become legislators.

The just-concluded by-election in Bhagalpur is a case in point how candidates are selected. The party fielded Ajit Sharma who had lost four times on a Congress ticket and once on a BSP ticket. There were other able contenders but local leaders convinced the high command that Sharma, a rich businessman, was the only one who could spend lots of money to be able to win.

If such wealthy candidates lose again, their financial clout could well keep them in the reckoning for the next election.