The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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One battle won, Sonia sizes up Mufti for Round II

New Delhi, Oct. 10: Sonia Gandhi was today praying at Banke Bihari temple of Krishna in Mathura when she received the news of the Congress surging ahead in Jammu and Kashmir.

She immediately told a party colleague: “We have been blessed. Our tally is going to go up from 14 to 15 states.”

The feel-good factor of increasing the tally of Congress-ruled states, the prospect of having a Muslim chief minister in its fold and an opportunity to showcase the Congress domination from Kashmir to Kerala to Arunachal Pradesh to Maharashtra have prompted Sonia to decide on staking claim to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir.

Sonia returned late in the evening from temple town of Mathura and went into a huddle with Manmohan Singh, Ambika Soni, Ahmad Patel and other senior leaders to take “charge” of the situation.

In her scheme of things, lucky mascot Ghulam Nabi Azad is man of the moment.

However, Azad is reluctant to don the mantle. As “son of the soil”, Azad is aware of the several handicaps around him. He does not belong to the Valley, which has been a traditional seat of power. Besides, the collective will of the newly elected MLAs has not been ascertained.

But he is reasonably sure of working out a coalition with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (15 seats) Bhim Singh’s Panthers’ Party (4) the CPM (2) and the Ladakh Autonomous Council (2).

If this combination comes through, the Congress, which has 20 seats, will have the support of 43 legislators — one short of the majority mark of 44 in the 87-member Assembly. Congress leaders said there are several “others” who have shown interest in keeping the National Conference at bay.

Ironically, there is no dearth of senior party leaders — Azad’s friends as well as detractors — pushing his name for the chief minister’s post.

Some influential AICC general secretaries are backing Azad on the hope that he would be away from the ‘Delhi durbar’. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh today came forward to propose Azad’s name.

On the home turf, Azad is wary of his arch rival, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who is more than keen to become chief minister.

The first sign of Mufti’s interest became clear when his daughter tacitly ruled herself out for the race of chief ministership. Mufti feels that he has the political acumen to lure some sections of separatists — a factor which he is using to build his case for the post.

Mufti is pitting himself ahead of Azad by arguing that unlike the Congress, he would be far more flexible in addressing the tricky issues of autonomy and resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

Besides, he would be better equipped to deal with the Centre unlike the Congress, which would be forced to view each and every gesture of the Vajpayee regime with suspicion.

Sonia is however, wary of Mufti. First, he is one leader who had walked out of the Congress after she had taken over as the Congress chief. Mufti is too old and crafty for her liking.

But the Congress president has admiration for his daughter, Mehbooba. Sources close to Sonia said if Mufti was prepared to play second fiddle, the Congress would offer the post of deputy chief minister to Mehbooba.

In addition, a Hindu leader from Jammu could be sworn in deputy chief minister to maintain regional balance.

The Sonia camp is not “unduly” worried about holding talks with separatists. A senior Congress leader said: “So far, all political parties say that talks have to be held within the framework of Indian Constitution. If there is a national consensus to walk the extra mile, we too would cover that.”

On tricky Centre-state relations, Congress leaders said their party has been in power in 14 states and there has been no major Centre-state standoff. “We have been in governance since the Independence, so we know how to conduct ourselves,” a former minister said.

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