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Discord On Board
Congress president Sonia Gandhi is campaigning harder than she ever has, covering 11 constituencies and travelling 250 km a day over a fortnight. She has taken the battle into the enemy camp, relentlessly targeting Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and aiming at the BJP's soft underbelly—unemployment, communalism and 'anti-poor' divestment programme. While she is treating Lok Sabha 2004 as a do-or-die battle, her generals seem to have a more complacent view.
The party's second line of leadership is busy taking potshots at each other rather than attacking the BJP—ticket distribution and whisper campaigns being the favourite weapons in this feud within the Congress parivar. General secretaries Ambika Soni, Kamal Nath, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel, in particular, have come in for ferocious criticism from party workers. "The party may not be in fighting trim, but it is 'infighting'," quipped a Congress leader.
The new coterie of Kamal Nath, Patel and Soni do not see eye to eye with the erstwhile Congress (T), comprising Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit and CWC members Arjun Singh, M.L. Fotedar and Natwar Singh. Likewise, the party's three minority leaders—Azad, Patel and Salman Khursheed—have locked horns with each other as have the party's legal eagles, Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Singhvi. The media team, too, is at daggers' drawn, with economy whiz Jairam Ramesh targeting spokesperson Anand Sharma and IPAN chief Rajiv Desai, as well as the entire AICC media set-up. At the state level, the scene is even more messy. Kamal Nath is pulling down former Madhya Pradesh CM Digvijay Singh. Patel and Soni are targeting Dikshit.
Sometimes, the party has to pay the price, Andhra Pradesh being a case in point. The Congress hopes to substantially improve its tally in the state, but infighting has threatened its prospects. Last fortnight, angry ticktarthis (ticket seekers) trashed Azad's garden in Delhi. In Delhi, where the Congress has a good chance of winning five seats out of seven—for the first time since 1984—the tug of war over tickets threatens its prospects. The Patel-Soni group has taken on the Dikshit-Arjun Singh-Fotedar camp and is pushing unknown candidates. For instance, rather than give the East Delhi ticket to the CM's son Sandeep, Patel has been pushing a restaurant-owner, Anil Bharadwaj. Not only does Dikshit have limited say in ticket distribution in Delhi, she hasn't been asked to campaign.
"There's always a certain level of angst following ticket distribution," says party spokesperson Kapil Sibal. But rarely has the protest been so visible. The entire Tamil Nadu PCC staged a walkout from the AICC in protest over ticket distribution in the state. Thereafter, party workers staged a dharna at the Congress headquarters. The groupism in the party has even affected the Congress' first family, with Soni, Nath and Ramesh positioning themselves as more loyal to Rahul Gandhi than Priyanka. But this is not likely to find favour with Sonia. However, she hasn't yet come up with any damage-control formula. Campaigning hard is fine, but it may come to nought if Sonia can't put her house in order fast.