The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia decks up for desert roadshow

New Delhi, Sept. 13: The Congress re-election campaign gathers renewed momentum in Rajasthan next week when Sonia Gandhi sets out on one of her biggest roadshows ever in the state’s western districts.

The party chief begins her two-day “jan sampark” programme to mobilise support for the Congress early on Monday in Hanumangarh district bordering Haryana.

She will travel by road through the districts of Ganganagar, Bikaner, Nagaur and Jodhpur. By Tuesday evening, she would have clocked up over 600 km, addressed three major public meetings and innumerable street-side halts to meet locals along the way. Campaign managers say the roadshow is one of the most extensive undertaken by Sonia since she took over as party chief five years ago.

But this is not her first roadshow in Rajasthan. Some weeks ago, Sonia braved the desert heat and travelled over 200 km in a single day in her first major pre-election mass contact programme in the state. More such roadshows are to follow in weeks to come.

Campaign managers think unlike in the other four states facing elections in November, Sonia needs to campaign extensively in Rajasthan. This is because chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s authority has been repeatedly challenged by rivals in the state Congress.

Sonia’s presence is also required because the high command has learnt that the Congress is marginally trailing the BJP in Rajasthan. The assessment is based on numerous pre-poll surveys commissioned by the party. Three surveys, conducted at regular intervals since February-March, reveal that the Congress has steadily narrowed the gap on the BJP.

The last survey was conducted in early July before a good monsoon ended a run of four successive droughts and showed that the Congress was trailing the BJP by less than 1.5 per cent in the popularity stakes. According to projections, the BJP would bag around 95 to 105 seats and the Congress 85 to 95.

The good monsoon should help the party make up lost ground, sources say. A fresh survey is being conducted to validate this assumption.

Even the July survey had said the Congress could beat the BJP if it concentrated on 43 “marginal seats” where the winning margin is expected to be extremely narrow.

“If the Congress picks up most of these marginal seats, the party tally will comfortably cross the 100 mark in the 200-member state Assembly,” a source said.

This is perhaps why Sonia is travelling that extra mile in the desert state.

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