The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Congress picks Atal as prime target

New Delhi, Aug. 3: The Congress has decided to target Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the run-up to the general elections next year as it has become clear that he will once again be the BJP’s poll mascot.

The Congress leadership became certain after Vajpayee snuffed out the controversy over the vikas purush-lauh purush comparison with his deputy L.K. Advani sparked by BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu.

A distinct view is emerging in the main Opposition party that Vajpayee’s leadership ought to be questioned to maximise anti-incumbency sentiments against the NDA government.

The Congress, however, may still be reluctant to project the general polls as a contest of an “ageing Vajpayee vs a youthful Sonia Gandhi”.

The party’s poll strategists believe that the only way to neutralise the BJP’s move to again stir up a controversy over Sonia’s leadership is by launching a pre-emptive counter-offensive of raising questions about Vajpayee’s leadership.

So Congress chief spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy’s doubts about Vajpayee’s leadership raised last week by dwelling on his age and “sinking” health did not come as a surprise. Subsequently, he went a step further, virtually advising Vajpayee to take sanyas. An Indian tradition, that is what elderly persons ought to do, Reddy emphasised.

His remarks against Vajpayee were not his own. Sources said the offensive was a reflection of the Congress’ resolve to demolish the BJP’s trump card for winning votes and poll allies.

The party’s aggressive intent is also showing in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament. On Thursday, Congress’ Lok Sabha member Satyavrata Chaturvedi warned that his party would boycott the Prime Minister if BJP members obstructed Sonia, the leader of Opposition, in the House.

In the days to come, the party will also project Vajpayee as a leader trying to stick to power at the cost of going back on his assertions in the past. Sources cited Vajpayee’s assertion in the Lok Sabha in 1998 that he would not contest polls any more.

“He has not only contested one more in 1999, now he wants to fight another election, hoping he will continue as Prime Minister,” a Congress strategist said.

The strategists tend to believe that direct attacks on the Prime Minister had paid handsome electoral dividend in the recent past. They said the Congress successfully pushed the BJP on the backfoot in the February Assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh by targeting the Prime Minister and his “food habits”.

“Even Vajpayee himself had to publicly react to the food-habit attack,” a strategist said.

The idea of the campaign is to snatch the initiative from the BJP in setting a poll agenda.

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