The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ticket tussle in MP Cong

Bhopal, June 10: A tug-of-war is in the offing in the Congress over ticket distribution in election-bound Madhya Pradesh with party chief Sonia Gandhi keen to break the satraps’ hegemony and Digvijay Singh wanting a say in the name of “inner-party democracy”.

AICC central observers Prithviraj Chavan, Pawan Bansal and Shamsher Singh Dullo arrived here with a brief from the high command that tickets would be given on merit, with a candidate’s clean image and chances of winning carrying a lot of weight. Emphasis will be given to women, weaker sections and minorities. Senior leaders like Kamal Nath, Arjun Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and the chief minister will not be allotted tickets to distribute to supporters.

The observers said they would tour the districts and give an “independent assessment” to Sonia. Significantly, the observers declined to avail the hospitality of the Digvijay regime and the state Congress committee, deciding to pay their own hotel bills and travelling in private cars.

But Digvijay seems to have a different agenda from the observers. Striking a pro-workers’ stance, the chief minister said the observers’ role was limited. Disapproving of the practice of aspirants submitting their credentials to central observers, Digvijay said the names of prospective candidates should come from the block and district levels.

He said the party would not charge Rs 5,000 from each applicant. If the AICC endorses Digvijay’s stand, it would lose a few crore rupees traditionally used for campaigning.

The chief minister’s insistence that the names of the 230 Assembly candidates should come from block and district Congress committees could mean that Digvijay ends up with the final say in ticket distribution. This is a situation that local and central-level leaders do not relish.

Digvijay is seeking a third successive term as chief minister. A victory would make him the undisputed number two in the party — a slot that has been lying vacant since the exit of Sharad Pawar and the deaths of Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot.

There are three distinct groups in the Congress at present. The old guard of Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, .D. Tiwari and K. Karunakaran has lost its importance, while middle-rung leaders like Ambika Soni, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmad Patel and R.K. Dhawan lack mass appeal and a pan-Indian identity. Digvijay is seen to be well ahead of leaders like Ajit Jogi, S.M. Krishna, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Gehlot in terms of political acumen and administrative skills.

The chief minister has been keeping a low profile and talk has begun in Congress circles and outside that he is biding his time for a crack at prime ministership, much like his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu.

This whisper campaign had another dimension: there is a view that the leadership would be better placed to elect its nominee as leader of the Congress legislature party if it handpicks MLAs loyal to the party and not to an individual.

But privately, central leaders admit that it would be difficult to deny Digvijay his “right” to be chief minister if the Congress wins the election.

The chief minister’s camp says there will be no “power tussle”. Leaders close to Digvijay said Sonia would be “fair and objective” in selecting nominees and continue to patronise the chief minister as she did in 1998.

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