Sonia stuns party with quit blow
Congress clueless on life after Sonia
Atal in bus diplomacy rerun
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New Delhi, May 17 
In a stunning move that could alter the face of Indian politics in the coming months, Sonia Gandhi tonight quit as Congress president, leaving her opponents agape and her followers aghast.

Her resignation ? 15 months after she took over ? came in response to the Sharad Pawar-led clique questioning her right to lead the nation because of her foreign origin and lack of experience in public life.

The Congress Working Committee (CWC), numb with shock after Sonia Gandhi?s decision, unanimously rejected her resignation. But sources close to 10 Janpath said she is unlikely to review her stand, which, they said, had been ?provoked by a staggering display of xenophobia surrounding her foreign origin?.

The Congress now faces the prospect of being rendered leaderless before what could be its toughest electoral test. If Sonia Gandhi remains adamant, the search for a successor would not only prove difficult, but could also lead to another split in the party.

The CWC, chaired in Sonia Gandhi?s absence by Pranab Mukherjee, fell at her feet, pleading with her to rescind. Till late tonight, however, Sonia Gandhi stood her ground. The decision to step down was her own, made after consulting son Rahul and daughter Priyanka. She did not take close friends or senior partymen into confidence.

?I do not think she will review it. Sonia Gandhi is not into political gimmicks. She has lived up to the highest traditions of the Congress of making selfless sacrifice which were practised by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi,? a close family friend said.

The CWC met this evening amid high drama outside the 24 Akbar Road headquarters of the AICC. As partymen raised slogans hailing Sonia Gandhi and condemning Pawar, a sombre Congress president arrived to attend the meeting. However, she excused herself soon after, saying she would prefer to stay away as the meeting would discuss her.

Soon after her departure, her personal secretary V. George came to the meeting carrying a letter from her, which announced her resignation. The letter was dated 15th May, the day the trio fired the salvo. Sources close to her said she had decided to resign as soon as she received Pawar?s letter on Saturday.

Sonia Gandhi struck at Pawar and his associates, saying: ?I am pained by their (Pawar and others?) lack of confidence in my ability to act in the best interest of the party and the country. In these circumstances, my sense of loyalty to the party and duty to my country compelled me to tender my resignation from the post of party president.?

Sources close to 10 Janpath said even if Pawar and Sangma now withdraw their remarks, Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to review her decision. ?She does not want to be seen as power-hungry,? a party leader said. He said Sonia Gandhi, being a determined person, had not taken the decision in a huff or under emotional stress.

Family friends said Sonia Gandhi was ?pained? at the growing attacks on Christians since she took over as party chief. In fact, she had wondered in conversations with several persons if there was a link between her political role and the onslaught. She had also been disturbed by the BJP?s consistent attacks on her origin, but appeared determined to fight as long as the party was behind her.

However, the personal attack by partymen came as the last straw. Through yesterday and today, Sonia Gandhi kept asking partymen where she went wrong and why senior leaders like Pawar and Sangma took such an extreme step. ?She did not want the issue of her foreign origin to come in the way of Congress prospects,? a party leader said.

At the same time, the demand for stringent action against Pawar, Sangma and Anwar is growing. During the day, there were protests outside 24 Akbar Road. Partymen raised slogans like ?Tariq, Sangma aur Pawar, inko maro jute char (Pawar, Sangma and Tariq should be clubbed with slippers)?.

By nightfall, most of them, including senior Youth Congress leaders, had begun a fast outside 10 Janpath to bring Sonia Gandhi back.

Pawar was working on a premise that the polls will throw up a fractured mandate. If the turn of events force him out of the Congress, Pawar feels he would be able to sew up a coalition by weaning away BJP allies like the Trinamul Congress, Lok Shakti and the Biju Janata Dal.

The BJP claimed that Sonia Gandhi?s resignation had helped it immensely. BJP Rajya Sabha MP K.R. Malkani congratulated her for ?showing wisdom? and applauded the three Congress leaders for questioning her origins. Some BJP leaders like BJP chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, V.K. Malhotra, dismissed the resignation as ?mere drama?.

The letter

May 15, 1999

At this morning?s meeting of Congress Working Committee, certain of my colleagues expressed views to the effect that my having been born elsewhere is a liability to the Congress party.

I am pained by their lack of confidence in my ability to act in the best interest of the party and the country.

In these circumstances, my sense of loyalty to the party and duty to my country compelled me to tender my resignation from the post of party president.

Though born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country. I am Indian and shall remain so till my last breath.

India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life. I came into the service of Congress party, knowing that it is the only party capable of providing India with a stable, secular, progressive and independent government. That belief remains unshakeable.

I came into the service of the party not for a position or power but because the party faced a challenge to its very existence and I could not stand idly by. I do not intend to do so now.

I have been privileged to receive the love and affection of ordinary Congressmen and women from all over the country and I will continue to serve the party as a loyal and active member to the best of my ability.

Sonia Gandhi    

New Delhi, May 17 
Congress leaders were groping in the dark tonight on the daunting issue of succession if they fail to persuade Sonia Gandhi to return.

Coming at a time when the campaign for elections is about to take off, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) now faces the unenviable task of choosing a new leader midstream who can not only hold the party together but also run a credible campaign.

Bluntly put, the Congress does not have a leader today who can keep the party together, much less lead it into a victorious campaign.

CWC members were meeting Sonia Gandhi individually till late night to plead with her and office-bearers of frontal organisations were issuing appeals to her to stay. But it was becoming apparent to most of them that the Congress will go different ways, in case Sonia Gandhi chooses to stick to her position.

The CWC is likely to meet again tomorrow to issue another appeal to Sonia Gandhi to take back her resignation, but party leaders have begun wondering what they will do if she does not.

Sources said in terms of seniority, Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy would be in the race to lead the party but they are non-choices.

Large sections of the party are wary of Arjun as they feel that his elevation would lead to factionalism. Reddy is considered too old and uninspiring while Pranab lacks a mass base. Sharad Pawar, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, can at the moment count himself out as he bears the blot of forcing Sonia Gandhi?s resignation.

The party may choose Manmohan Singh or A.K. Antony. Manmohan was dubbed the party?s second best choice for Prime Minister during the Sonia Gandhi era. Party leaders, however, feel while Manmohan lacks experience, Antony has limitations at the national level.

Frontrunners among the younger elements include Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot.

Senior Congressmen maintain that they will not discuss the issue of Sonia Gandhi?s successor till the possibility of her reviewing the decision ends. ?We would like her to continue. However, if she does not budge, we would like her to name the successor,? a senior leader said.

Among the dark horses, N.D. Tiwari?s name, too, is doing the rounds.    

New Delhi, May 17 
After riding the peace bus from Delhi to Lahore, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is planning a similar trip from Calcutta to Dhaka in the middle of June.

The date of the inaugural bus service is still being worked out, but India has told Bangladesh that it would be convenient for Vajpayee to travel to Dhaka in the second week of June.

Vajpayee is expected to take a helicopter from Calcutta to Haridaspur on the Bangladesh border. There he will board the bus for a short ride to Benapole, where he will be received by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. After a brief ceremony, the heads of state are likely to fly to Dhaka by helicopter.

Vajpayee will possibly invite West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu to accompany him, as he had asked Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal during the ride from Amritsar to the Wagah border.

It remains to be seen whether Basu will accept the invitation since the Lok Sabha elections are close and the Left has made the BJP the focus of its attack.

Though the Calcutta-Dhaka bus was on the cards even before the service to Lahore, it ran into rough weather because of the political turmoil at the Centre. It was revived only after the success of the Lahore ride in February.

Since Vajpayee has earned praise for his efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, the BJP-led coalition is now trying to turn the Calcutta-Dhaka bus ride into another feather in the Prime Minister?s cap.

The bus has already had a dry run in the first week of April.

Initially, the two sides thought of starting the service on May 9, the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, who has penned the national anthem for both India and Bangladesh.

But political developments after the Vajpayee government lost the trust vote on April 17 forced a postponement.

One of the main reasons for Vajpayee wanting to open the bus service is to assert himself and send out a signal that his is not a ?caretaker? government, and that he will continue to take decisions in the interest of India.

Besides, when the first bus rolls out, the BJP would be able to use it as an electoral plank, particularly in Bengal.

If Vajpayee does visit Dhaka in June, he will be the third Indian Prime Minister to go to Bangladesh in a little over two years.

H.D. Deve Gowda had crossed the eastern border on a bilateral visit. His successor I.K. Gujral also visited Bangladesh for a tripartite meeting in which Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was present.

Though Dhaka has not yet got back to Delhi on the dates proposed for Vajpayee?s visit, an Indian Prime Minister?s visit to the country suits the ruling Awami League government perfectly well.

Irrespective of the BJP government?s current status, Sheikh Hasina will be keen to get the Dhaka-Calcutta bus service started, as there is popular support for it in her country.

After the success of the Ganga water pact, the bus service could be showcased as another major achievement.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of thundershower towards afternoon or evening in some parts. Slight rise in day temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 33.5 (3?C below normal)
Minimum 25.9?C (1?C below normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 92% Minimum 60%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunset: 6.07 pm Sunrise: 4.58 am    

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