The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia gives up pole position to woo allies

Mumbai/New Delhi, Dec. 28: Sonia Gandhi today appeared to suggest that the alliance the Congress is proposing need not project her as the prime ministerial candidate as it goes into elections.

Asked if she would be the Congress candidate for prime minister, Sonia said: “This is a question to be decided by the people of the country.”

Hidden in the statement is the message for prospective partners worried about her “foreign origin” that the Congress would not insist she lead the proposed secular front.

Leaders like the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and breakaway Congress heavyweight Sharad Pawar are reluctant to accept Sonia as the head of an umbrella coalition to fight the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

Sonia indicated to them that the question of who would be the prime minister should be left to be settled after the elections. At the same time, she told them not to advise the Congress on who it should pick as its leader.

“We never impose our leadership on other parties. We do not interfere with the internal affairs of other parties and it would be unfair for them to do so. The leadership of the Congress will be decided by us,” she said in Mumbai.

Her statement coincided with the first public comment from a senior party leader, suggesting that the Congress itself should not announce its prime ministerial candidate until after the elections.

Karnataka leader Jaffer Sharief, a key member of the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government but now in Congress wilderness, said: “They (the AICC leaders) should not insist on this stand. Come out with a new strategy, let the MPs decide who should be the Prime Minister.”

This is a direct challenge to Sonia’s leadership from within the party, voiced at a function organised in Bangalore by the Karnataka Congress Committee in the presence of state president Janardhana Poojary. He, however, said the comments were made by Sharief in his “personal capacity”.

Sharief is a Lok Sabha MP and chairs the Congress Minorities Cell. He said: “The Congress has called for an alliance of like-minded parties but no party is coming forward. What is the reason' Because the Congress party is insisting on projecting Sonia Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate, about which other parties have reservations.”

It was as if by a strange twist of events Sonia was addressing the same concern elsewhere. The two statements separated by distance suggest an admission in the highest leadership of the party as well as at some lower levels that insisting on her being thrust forward as the prime ministerial nominee could become a liability of a strategy.

Sharief proposed that the Congress contest the polls with allies “sharing a common ground” but without projecting a candidate for the prime minister’s post.

He said: “If it is in her (Sonia’s) destiny to become the Prime Minister, she will become the Prime Minister. Let destiny decide.”

“Why do the party leaders at the helm do not understand the gravity of the issue'” he asked.

It now seems the party president herself has realised this. The realisation might have followed the debacle in the Assembly polls. It is clear that if the Congress wants to forge a meaningful alliance, Sonia will have to stay in the background.

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