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Sep 13, 2010 at 06:59pm IST

Rahul Gandhi to play the Bengal card

New Delhi: Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi will on Tuesday begin his second visit to West Bengal in less than a fortnight, giving a clear signal that the party is going all-out in its preparations for next year's assembly polls in the state.

Gandhi, who set the pace for the party's campaign by a no-holds-barred attack on the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led state government at a rally in Kolkata on September 6, has a packed schedule during his three-day visit to the state.

He is slated to address meetings and conventions of youth workers, tribals, Dalits and women across several districts of West Bengal.

Rahul Gandhi's Bengal visit is aimed at galvanising the Congress for the 2011 assembly polls.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is also expected to visit Kolkata later this month to address the east zonal meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC).

Congress sources said that visits of top leaders will help rejuvenate the party and allow it to hold seat-sharing talks with the Trinamool Congress from a position of strength. The party also wants to be prepared for the eventuality of having to go it alone in the polls, which are due by May next year.

They said that Congress efforts to emerge stronger in the state are part of plans to gain strength in four states where it has been weak for years -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

The four states together have over 200 Lok Saha seats and the Congress is keen to regain its strength in these states to come to power on its own in the next Lok Sabha polls.

Congress leaders said that the party will seek its due share of seats from the Trinamool Congress in the West Bengal elections where the odds are heavily loaded against the ruling Left Front. The seat sharing talks, for which the two parties have not yet worked out a time frame, are expected to take place in Delhi.

Congress MP and West Bengal in-charge K.Keshava Rao said that the party is keen on an alliance with the Trinamool Congress but not at the cost of its interests.

"We are for an alliance with Trinamool Congress but not at the cost of our interests and self-respect," said Rao.

Though Rao did not specify the number of seats the Congress aims at contesting as part of alliance, he said the party will "ask for what it deserves".

He said Rahul Gandhi's rally had infused new energy in the party and galvanised the youth.

"The rally has given the party a new hope," Rao said.

The Congress and the Trinamool Congress fought the 2009 Lok Sabha polls together but could not reach an understanding for the municipal elections in the state held in May.

In the last assembly polls, which the two parties contested separately, the Congress won 21 seats with 14.71 per cent vote share while the Trinamool Congress won 30 seats with 26.47 per cent votes. In the Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool Congress won 19 of the 27 seats it contested while the Congress won six of the 14 it fought.

The Trinamool Congress also emerged as the single largest party in the municipal elections held in May.

With Trinamool chief and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee keeping up the momentum of her attack on the ruling Left Front through rallies, the Congress is also keen to get its electoral act together. The party is reaching out to the youth and weaker sections of the society in an effort to expand its base.

Meanwhile, Trinamool Congress leaders said that Rahul Gandhi had raised broadly the same issues in his Kolkata rally, which Banerjee has been raising over the years.

Party leader Sudip Bandopadhyay said the issues of improper implementation of rural employment guarantee act and irregularities in lists of families below poverty line (BPL) had been raised by the party.

"We have raised all these issues much ahead," said Bandopadhyay.

During his speech in Kolkata, Rahul Gandhi spoke of two West Bengals - "one of the CPI-M which has money" and the other "of the poor and backward".

A political observer said that attempts by the Congress to gain strength are likely to lead to some competition with the Trinamool Congress.

"Both the parties are competing to take a more strident anti-CPI-M line," he said.

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