Desperate measures: Sonia enters the election fray in bid to salvage floundering Congress campaign
Faced with a make-or-break general election and an aggressive drive by Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi that has even weaned away leaders from the Congress, Sonia Gandhi is set to take centre stage in her party's poll campaign from the first week of April.
Sonia's decision to enter the fray comes amidst a widespread perception that her son, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, has not been able to match Modi's forceful performance on the campaign trail.
The Congress has watched helplessly as the BJP has forged alliances, including with former allies like Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party, and wooed away senior party leaders like Jagdambika Pal and Satpal Maharaj.
Campaign: Congress president Sonia Gandhi's (right) decision to enter the fray comes amidst a widespread perception that her son, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, (left) has not been able to match Narendra Modi's forceful performance on the campaign trail
According to Congress sources, Sonia is expected to inject fresh blood into a campaign in disarray.
The sources said Sonia would address a series of rallies across the country ahead of the polls in nine phases, beginning with Assam.
Though Rahul started his campaign a month ago and addressed rallies in many states, Congress managers have higher expectations from Sonia's charisma, which helped the party snatch power from the BJP in 2004 and retain it in the 2009 general elections.
Sonia is expected to campaign in the first week of April in Dibrugarh or Lakhimpur that are among the five seats in Assam where polling will be held on April 7.
In Haryana, where polling in all 10 seats is scheduled for April 10, Sonia is expected to campaign at Nuh in Mewat district or in Gurgaon, where sitting MP Rao Inderjit Singh has moved to the BJP.
She may also address rallies at Karnal or Kurukshetra. Congress managers said the theme of Sonia's campaign will be the communal agenda of the BJP represented by Modi versus the pro-poor and pro-development agenda of the UPA in the past 10 years.
She is also expected to target the BJP's negative political agenda built around allegations of large-scale corruption under the UPA regime.
The Congress chief is also expected to highlight that despite the global financial crisis, India's economic growth was not impacted as much as in developed and developing countries, said the sources.
Rallies will be organised in line with requests from candidates and state units, and in strategic constituencies where key Congress leaders are contesting, the sources said.
Sonia will be joined on the campaign trail by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, they said. Miffed over the fact that many senior leaders were shying away from fighting the polls, Sonia personally intervened on Friday and ensured that former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was fielded against BJP's Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, party veteran Ambika Soni fights the polls from Anandpur Sahib and senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar joins the fray from Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu.
Sonia personally spoke to Amarinder Singh, Soni, Aiyar and Sports Minister Jitendra Singh, to whom she made it clear that he would have to fight from Alwar in Rajasthan.
Sources said Sonia told the senior leaders that they would have to go out into the field and lead the fight.
She also warned them: "We swim together or we sink together, if that has to be".
In 2014, the Congress faces a strong anti-incumbency wave after 10 years of the UPA government --- reflected by its senior leaders shying away from contesting polls, and others like Jagdambika Pal and Satpal Maharaj choosing to shift loyalty to the Modi bandwagon.
Several Congress MLAs in Gujarat, Orissa, Uttarakhand and Goa too have quit the party. According to Congress sources, there is a lot of pressure on party managers to squeeze in demands from various candidates for Sonia to visit their constituency.
These candidates want her to visit just before the deadline for campaigning in the hope that her appeal will remain fresh in the minds of voters as they head for the ballot boxes.
Sonia's priorities will be guided by the strategic importance of constituencies and areas where the Congress hopes to register maximum electoral gains, the sources said.
"She shares a strong bond with all regional leaders and workers," said a senior Congress leader.
At a time when most opinion polls have projected a sharp decline for the Congress that won 206 seats in 2009, a party strategist recalled how Sonia ignored the aggressive 'India Shining' publicity drive of the BJP in the 2004 polls and instead focused her campaign on problems faced by rural voters, who responded by voting for her party.
Polls for 543 Lok Sabha seats will be spread over nine phases from April 7 to May 12. The results will be out on May 16.
Rahul spells out his vision for women
By Piyush Srivastava and Anup Dutta
Women empowerment was the central theme of Rahul Gandhi's two outings on Saturday.
"I want you to become industrialists and run universities. I want you to become Chief Ministers and the prime minister of the country.
"Then only India would be able to become a superpower," Rahul said at an election rally at Ramleela ground in Uttar Pradesh's Pratapgarh, from where sitting MP Ratna Rani Singh is seeking re-election.
Obstacle: Rahul Gandhi crosses the barricade to meet those who had come to attend his rally in Pratapgarh
"I want you to excel in education, politics and entrepreneurship," he told the women who had gathered from the villages.
The Congress vice-president also slammed the BJP-led NDA allies for preventing the Women's Reservation Bill from getting passed in Parliament and said he would be happy if they get 50 per cent quota in Parliament and state assemblies.
While targeting BJP's PM nominee Narendra Modi, Rahul said: "The BJP leaders claim they are behind the growth in Gujarat. But the truth is that the women of Gujarat are behind the development in the state."
In the middle of his tirade against the BJP, Rahul spoke about forging ahead of China in the manufacturing of electronic items.
"China dominates in the manufacturing of watches, cameras and other electronic goods. But I want India to compete with China in the manufacturing of such items," he said.
Earlier in the day, Rahul spent time with tribal women engaged in the collection of tendu leaves at Patpatpara in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh.
He slammed other political parties for doing nothing for the tribal women.
"These days leaders come, deliver a speech and return. In contrast, I have come to listen to your problems and not to deliver any speech," Rahul said.
He also alleged that the BJP has been promoting corrupt politicians.
"They talk about corruption. But Yeddyurappa (former Karnataka CM), who was involved in corruption and was sent to jail, has been given prominence in the party."
He also blamed the UP government for the poor power situation in the state.
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