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The Congress has contracted market-research agency Nielsen India to help it zero-in on party candidates with the best chance of winning in the upcoming general elections.
The exercise, a first for the Congress, began a few months ago. A core team advising Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on candidate selection is providing the agency with a shortlist of at least two probable candidates from the party, besides the name of the sitting MP for each of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies.
"We are using poll science to identify the most winnable candidate,'' a Congress leader told HT on condition of anonymity.
Special attention is being paid to the 15-odd constituencies where Gandhi plans to use US-style primaries to select the candidate, Congress and Nielsen sources confirmed. In the experiment, block and district-level party workers will cast votes to select the party candidate for each constituency. "Nielsen is checking if the Congress workers' choice matches that of the constituents,'' said a Congress leader.
Madhusudan Mistry, a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, who is in touch with the market-research agency, didn't respond to a direct question on Nielsen but said, "Our assessment says voters want to see fresh faces, but finally, winnability will be the biggest consideration."
A Nielsen spokesperson did not deny the exercise either. While first saying, "We cannot respond because the team is travelling,'' it later got back to say, "We cannot comment on market speculation."
The Congress is leaving little to chance in the upcoming elections, seen as an uphill task for a party and government battling a huge anti-incumbency factor. Nielsen's exercise, the party hopes, will help them select the most winnable candidate.
The know-your-consumer exercise, however, has also thrown up major challenges for the party. Candidates tainted with corruption charges -- like Suresh Kalmadi from Pune, Ashok Chavan from Nanded and Pawan Bansal from Chandigarh --are among those best placed to win.
"This has put us in a quandary,'' a leader who is in the know of the survey told HT. If the party goes ahead with the winnability principle and nominates these leaders, they will come under sharp criticism from political opponents, particularly the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
The young party has already announced its candidate from Pune, where Kalmadi, chargesheeted in the Commonwealth Games scam, is trying to get a ticket for himself or his wife. Similarly, Chavan is embroiled in the Adarsh housing scam and Bansal in the Railgate scandal.
"My personal view is that anyone who is not convicted is not tainted,'' senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh told HT, but added, "The party president (Sonia) and vice-president (Rahul) are very sensitive to this and believe chargesheeted candidates should not be given tickets."
Many within the Congress are also opposing the inclusion of those tainted with corruption charges but for the rest, as a party leader said, "Nielsen's survey will come in very handy."