In the theatrical style which has become a trademark, Congress president Sonia Gandhi laid to rest any doubts about her candidature for prime ministership. But while her entry into politics and assumption of the Congress leadership were accomplished with confidence, the cloak-and-dagger operation which culminated in her filing her nomination papers from Bellary in Karnataka signalled a high degree of insecurity.
Eschewing her political advisors, Sonia turned to her pal and Dow Jones India head Suman Dubey for help in the vital matter of selecting a 'safe' seat. He commissioned surveys in perhaps a dozen possible constituencies including Bellary, Cuddapah, Phulpur, Sultanpur, Rae Bareilly, Chhindwara and Amethi. Dubey zeroed in on Bellary, which gave her an 80 per cent chance of winning.
The matter having come up in the party's central election committee meeting, it was known that Bellary was the likely choice. But party managers chose to confuse the issue by claiming she would contest from Cuddapah. The general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Ghulam Nabi Azad, made a categorical statement to that effect. But the bjp took no chances, despatching cinestar Vijayshanti to Cuddapah late at night. Her immense appeal,comparable only to that of Amitabh Bachhan in his heyday,made it a foregone conclusion that Sonia would not contest from Cuddapah.
Meanwhile, Sushma Swaraj and Rajshekhar Murthy were despatched to Bellary. On the face of it, Bellary appears to be a one-sided contest; the Congress has never lost this backward Karnataka district since '57. But the vote percentage has been declining steadily and in the last two polls, the Congress candidate squeaked through only because of the division of votes between the Janata Dal on the one hand and the bjp and its allies on the other. They are now together, with the exception of the Congress-aligned splinter group led by H.D. Deve Gowda. But lacking a base among the Lingayat community, which comprises a fifth of the electorate here, Gowda may not be able to assist Sonia. The bjp, however, has an impressive lineup of Lingayat leaders.
Sushma is a tough campaigner. She speaks a smattering of Kannada and proved her appeal in the area while campaigning against Indira Gandhi in Chikmagalur in '78. Besides, the border constituency boasts a large Telegu population which will be wooed by the tdp's star campaigners. Despite all this, few expect Sushma to win, but she isn't a pushover either.
The secretiveness of Operation Bellary, preceded by the painstaking combing of the country for safe seats, sent out the message that the Congress president wasn't sure of victory. 'Where was the need for all this? We could have openly announced she was contesting from Amethi and Bellary. Who were we trying to fool?' asks a party general secretary. Admitting that the affair had been mismanaged, a Congress MP wondered whether 'Sonia had thought the intelligence failure in Kargil would be repeated in Bellary'.
But if Sonia appears insecure, her partymen are not far behind. Madhavrao Scindia, the sitting MP from Gwalior, sought a change of seat after political observers predicted a resounding defeat for him. In the last election, he squeaked through by just 23,000 votes and then only because the local bjp was working at cross purposes with the official nominee, Jai Bhan Singh Pawaiya. His move to Guna, a Scindia pocket-borough, is seen as fleeing to a 'safe' seat. A similar message was sent out when Ajit Jogi successfully lobbied for a change from Raigarh to Shahdol. This, despite Congressmen in the district passing a resolution against him, saying they preferred a local candidate. Likewise, in Rajasthan, Balram Jakhar chose to shift from Bikaner to Sikar.
Many others have opted out of the race altogether, Arjun Singh being a notable example. He had reportedly considered his home constituency of Satna, but had second thoughts. Natwar Singh, MP from Bharatpur, has opted out on grounds of poor health. A more compelling reason could have been opposition from Jats and Meos, which has dimmed Congress chances in the district (though a patch-up with Meo leaders is said to have been effected lately).
Others not contesting include former minister Kumari Selja and Orissa stalwarts J.B. Patnaik and Ramchandra Rath. Congress Working Committee members Ambika Soni and Margaret Alva, too, changed their minds about contesting after first saying yes. The bjp nominee from Hoshiarpur, where Soni was expected to stand, is now proclaiming that the Congress is 'running scared'. Senior Punjab leaders admit that Soni was a likely winner, but lost confidence at the last moment.
One of the seats Sonia was rumoured to have considered was Mirayalaguda in Andhra Pradesh. It turned out that it was being kept vacant for former Janata Dal stalwart Sudini Jaipal Reddy while he made up his mind whether or not to join the Congress. The tdp, whose offer of a seat he rejected, sees him as a proxy target and may well field cinestar Jayaprada against him.
The coolly self-assured Sonia who claimed the 'support of 272 MPs' in her bid for prime ministership threw down the gauntlet to the bjp with 'they don't know the stuff I'm made of'. Now she has to show what she's made of to the electorate.