The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong first family in Indira’s footsteps
Udupi on the plate for cutting teeth

New Delhi, Feb. 19: With its rival cornering all the dazzle, the Congress may have been left pondering about its star cast for the poll war ahead.

But chances are one member of the party’s first family — comprising chief Sonia Gandhi, daughter Priyanka and son Rahul — might land down south in coastal Karnataka, the native land of reigning Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai and other prominent names like Shilpa Shetty and Sunil Shetty.

Of course, in the case of Priyanka and Rahul, they have to first decide whether to join active politics. As for Sonia, it has to be decided whether she would contest from a second Lok Sabha seat — as she had done in 1999 — besides the family borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

Informed sources said the Udupi parliamentary constituency in Karnataka has been identified as a safe seat in case Sonia decides to contest from a second seat.The seat was held by the party in the 13th Lok Sabha and is considered safe, though general secretary Oscar Fernandes suffered an upset defeat in 1998 after winning five consecutive times.

The sources said a detailed survey was recently done to confirm whether it is safe as a VIP constituency. The survey, they added, went into the constituency’s profile — social, political and economic.

Dropping enough hints that Udupi could be chosen as a constituency for Sonia or one of her children, a Karnataka Congress leader said: “We may be required to campaign in Udupi this time.” However, party leaders are not willing to officially confirm this, let alone discuss the subject.

It is believed that the Bellary Lok Sabha seat in the state, from where Sonia won last time, would not be chosen. In the past, Indira Gandhi had contested and won from Chikmagalur in Karnataka in 1978 and Medak in Andhra Pradesh in 1980. She never returned to these seats. Similarly, as Sonia vacated Bellary after winning it, she would not return to the seat, the sources said.

The party also does not consider Andhra or any other state in the south a safe bet for its first family. The option is confined to Congress-ruled Karnataka. Two days ago, chief minister S.M. Krishna declared in the capital: “The Gandhis can come to Karnataka and choose a constituency of their choice.” Udupi might well have been the seat he had in mind.

The sources said the party leadership has been closely following frequent media reports that suggested defence minister George Fernandes could contest from Udupi or his native Mangalore. But in the last few weeks, the leadership has almost concluded that Fernandes would stay put in his Bihar battleground and not turn homeward.

There is also speculation that Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh could be made available to one of the members of the Congress’ first family, if required. The seat, adjacent to Sonia’s Amethi, is currently held by family loyalist Satish Sharma who is, apparently, eyeing the Outer Delhi seat.

The sources said Sharma has an outside chance of lobbying for the Delhi seat, currently held by Union labour minister Sahib Singh Verma, as the Congress is apprehensive about re-nominating local contender Sajjan Kumar, tainted in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The Congress fears nominating him could anger Sikh voters in the capital.

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