The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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No-campaign shade for Sonia

New Delhi, Nov. 19: The Congress defence of Sonia Gandhi before the Election Commission is expected to hinge on a clarification that she had used the Chhattisgarh state helicopter not for campaigning but to fly to a central government function.

The Election Commission had yesterday asked the Congress to show cause why it should not be de-recognised as a national party as Sonia and Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi had violated the model code of conduct by using state government aircraft for campaigning.

The Congress’ legal brains trust today felt that Sonia had not violated the model code on October 10 as she had flown to Sriperumbudur to take part in a memorial function for Rajiv Gandhi. The function had been organised by the Union urban development ministry and was attended by the President.

“Since it was an official function in a state (Tamil Nadu) which is not going to the polls, the use of helicopter by the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha does not constitute a violation of code,” a senior leader said.

Besides, the poll panel had not been strictly correct in saying Sonia had flown the copter from Raipur to Sriperumbudur, he said. She had merely taken it from Chennai and back.

Although this could be the line the Congress will take, it is doubtful whether the commission will accept the argument. Sources in the commission said it would not have sent a showcause to a politician of Sonia’s stature unless it had done its homework well.

Sonia could have hopped on from Chennai but the copter had flown empty all the way from Raipur to ferry her to Sriperumbudur. The Chhattisgarh government’s EC 135 copter had made three technical halts along the way.

A specific section of the model code imposes an “absolute ban” on the use of state-owned aircraft and helicopters at government cost for “any reason, including security”. The Election Commission had specifically cited this provision, which makes “no exception” but for the Prime Minister.

Commission officials, however, said the notice was intended more as a “moral stricture” for all parties violating the model code than as a threat of de-recognition to the Congress.

Much would depend on the tone of the Congress reply. The commission could take a lenient view if the response accepts the gravity of the model code and sends out a signal that would act as a deterrent to others.

Besides, the commission sources pointed out, the panel’s main grouse was with Jogi, not Sonia. Congress leaders would not comment on the trips made by Jogi.

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