The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shinde ahead in Mumbai race

New Delhi, Jan. 14: Veteran Congressman Sushil Kumar Shinde is emerging as the high command’s favourite nominee to replace Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh as three central observers prepare to reach Mumbai tomorrow to elicit the views of state leaders.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi today asked senior working committee members Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad to accompany Vayalar Ravi, AICC general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, to the state capital. The three met Sonia tonight.

The observers will interact with MLAs, senior leaders and, if necessary, with the Congress’ partners in the Democratic Front, Sonia’s political secretary Ambika Soni said while announcing the team.

Ravi said they would individually meet as many MLAs and party leaders as possible and speak to representatives of the other constituents.

After this, a formal meeting of the Congress legislature party will be convened, presumably to elect Deshmukh’s successor. The whole process would not take more than two days, he added. If need be, they would stay overnight in Mumbai before submitting their report to Sonia.

Ravi declined to formally acknowledge the move to replace Deshmukh, though he admitted that the high command had done its homework before setting in motion the political “surgery”. “We are not carrying any names from here,” he maintained.

But informed sources in the party are almost certain Shinde will be the successor, though former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil remains in the race. At the moment, the high command does not see much of a resistance in the state unit to Shinde’s choice.

The sources said the central team’s composition is such that it will give Shinde the advantage over any others. The Congress is understood to have sounded Maharashtra ally Sharad Pawar on the change of guard.

Shinde has excellent rapport with Pawar, though the same cannot be said about his equation with second-rung NCP leaders, including deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal.

It is because of this that the Congress high command is avoiding any public comment on the possible successor.

Shinde, who has been a minister in the state for 18 long years, including as finance minister for nine years, arrived in the capital from his home district of Solapur last night, today made light of the talks about his talking over the mantle of DF leadership from Deshmukh.

When contacted, he said he did not have any communication from Sonia. This morning, he attended a meeting of the Congress central election committee at Sonia’s residence for selection of the party candidates for the ensuing Assembly polls. It was not clear whether he met Sonia separately.

Apparently, the efforts of the observers will be to persuade Congress MLAs to agree on adopting a one-line CLP resolution authorising Sonia to name Deshmukh’s successor. If this comes through, there is unlikely to be any delay in the election of the new leader, the sources said.

With Deshmukh, his bete noire and MPCC president Govindrao Adik too may have to go. Deshmukh is believed to have secured such an assurance from Sonia during their meeting last night. Adik met the party chief this morning. “If I am asked to resign, I would do so,” he told newsmen after the meeting. Later in the day, he held a separate meeting with Ravi. It is not clear, however, whether Adik will lose his job immediately or retain it for some time. Among the names considered for the party job are Prithviraj Chavan and Ranjith Deshmukh.

Gehlot reprieve

Congress general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan Ambika Soni sent out a subtle but clear message that Ashok Gehlot will remain chief minister in the run-up to the Assembly polls, due in November.

Soni said his government had performed “more than satisfactorily”. This must have come as a reassurance to Gehlot after reports that his scheduled meeting with Sonia today, the second in 10 days, spelt trouble for another Congress chief minister.

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