The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Date suspense: Atal & Sonia stir poll pot

New Delhi, Dec. 23: Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi today moved simultaneously to keep the pot boiling on the possibility of early general elections.

Addressing his party’s MPs, the Prime Minister left open-ended the timing of the elections next year, hinting that the last word has not been spoken yet.

“There is no uncertainty about the holding of Lok Sabha elections on schedule,” BJP spokesperson V.K. Malhotra quoted Vajpayee as having told the MPs.

The comment seemed to clinch the issue in favour of elections in October as scheduled but the Prime Minister kept the question alive by an exhortation that followed.

“With the political climate suitably inclined towards the BJP, we have to take advantage of this situation,” Malhotra quoted Vajpayee as saying.

Keen to ensure that the latter part of Vajpayee’s statement is not overlooked, sources close to the Prime Minister’s Office later said the intention was not to convey an impression that the possibility of early polls is being ruled out.

The Congress president, too, referred to the poll timetable while addressing her MPs today — the concluding day of the winter session of Parliament.

“The next few months will see elections in Andhra Pradesh. We also cannot rule out the possibility of the Lok Sabha polls being advanced,” she said, asking Congress workers to be ready for the “coming challenge”.

In public, a section of BJP leaders denied that the Prime Minister was hinting at early polls. They felt that he was talking in terms of a “general readiness” for polls whenever they are held.

The debate reflected a within the BJP that the party should go in for the kill before the “feel-good factor” — both economically and politically — evaporates.

However, opinion also exists in the BJP that a dash to general elections, spurred by the Assembly poll performance, will leave the party vulnerable to charges that it is “power-hungry” and “opportunistic”.

Sonia talks ‘collective’

With her authority over the Congress undermined following the weekend resignation drama, Sonia Gandhi today appealed for a “collective and cohesive” leadership.

“Today, when our great party faces many challenges, the need for each and every one of us to work collectively and cohesively, to work in a selfless spirit of cooperation is paramount,” the Congress chief told her party’s MPs.

This was Sonia’s first, albeit indirect, reference to the mass resignation drama staged by a “core group” of All India Congress Committee office-bearers considered close to her.

The Ambika Soni group had staged the drama to divert attention from the debate.

Sonia’s allusion to the weekend drama was no surprise since an impression had gained ground that the Congress chief was shielding members of the Soni group.

The party elders have not attributed the drama directly to the Congress chief, but it is felt that she was in the picture when the Soni group comprising Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath, Mukul Wasnik and Motilal Vora decided on Friday night to start the resignation campaign. The decision was taken at Sonia’s 10 Janpath residence.

With the blind faith in her leadership eroded, the Congress chief may now be under intense pressure to revamp the party organisation to gear the Congress for next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

The test of credibility hinges on unifying the party at the top through the revamp.

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