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Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
April 23, 2009
Much is being made of Lalu Prasad’s attacks on the Congress on the campaign trail. Within the Congress, however, these attacks have not provoked much concern, only a certain irritation. The general view is that the RJD is sinking and that Lalu is flailing around desperately. Should the numbers work out, the Congress would have no difficulty in working with him at the Centre once again.

The Congress is more concerned about the campaign that the Samajwadi Party is conducting in Uttar Pradesh. The media are content to buy the line that the Congress’s only problem with the Samajwadi Party is Sonia Gandhi’s loathing of Amar Singh. While it is true that Amar Singh is not exactly the oversized pin-up boy at 10 Janpath, this view gives him too much credit.

The problems run much deeper. The Congress’s primary concern is that Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party have hijacked its Muslim base by playing the communal card. Further, the Congress also believes that the party has criminalised the state and politicised the administration to an extent that is entirely unacceptable. This view has gained more ground after Rahul Gandhi began touring UP some years ago.

An example of the Congress’s concerns is the current campaign being jointly waged by Amar Singh and Sanjay Dutt. Whenever this duo goes to a Muslim area, Sanjay gives an impassioned speech about his terrorism arrest. “The Bombay Police picked up Muslims and threw them in jail,” he says. “Then, when this looked bad, they locked up 15-20 Hindus as well. Throughout my time in jail, I was beaten up by the police who kept saying that I was the son of a Muslim mother.”

The implication is obvious. Even if you’re half-Muslim and a successful Bollywood actor, you will be victimised in India and assaulted by the police only because of your religion.

To say that this kind of statement is inflammatory is putting it mildly. Many people in the Congress argue that it is also communal.

Why have one standard for the BJP’s anti-Muslim statements and another for the Samajwadi Party’s shameless pandering to the worst kind of Muslim communalism?

Nobody in the Congress has forgotten that it was an Samajwadi Party minister who offered a reward for the head of the Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in his cartoons. The party’s concern is that it will have to match this kind of communal rhetoric if it is to win back the Muslim vote. Worse still, if it aligns with the Samajwadi Party, it will have to condone such statements and probably have to agree with them in public.

The perception that the Congress will refuse to align with the Samajwadi Party because the party’s principal concern is the welfare of Reliance ADAG may make for a good story. But it is not true. There are more significant problems. And should the numbers make an alliance imperative after the election, this is one marriage that cannot last.

And it is this prospect that has given the Congress leadership sleepless nights.