Congress, BJP are haunted by past misdeeds
Rahul Gandhi's excessive enthusiasm for winning new friends for the Congress has landed his party in some trouble.
Several constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress have not been amused by this search for partners since it suggests that the party no longer has much faith in the alliance.
True, the UPA is not in the pink of health. Its prominent members like Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh Yadav have set up a mini-front in the Hindi belt. They are fighting both the Congress and their main adversaries, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) in Bihar and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh.
Speculation is also rife about Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar's prime ministerial ambitions.
None of this can be comforting for the Congress since these developments deepen its doubts about the UPA's cohesion as well as its ability to cross the half-way mark of 272 MPs.
Since the UPA will need outside support if it falls short, there is nothing surprising about Rahul Gandhi's expectations. But what was odd was his casting of a very wide net. Not only did his praise of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar signify overt courtship, he also expressed the hope about the Left returning to the Congress camp.
What was even more curious was his laudatory reference to Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu and oblique hints about a tie-up with AIADMK leader Jayalalitha.
Not surprisingly, this long list upset a number of the Congress's present allies. They included Lalu Prasad and Paswan, who evidently could not accept the overtures to their arch-adversary in Bihar, Nitish Kumar.
In West Bengal Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee was unhappy about a possible patch-up between the Congress and the Communists, who are her main opponents in the state.
In this atmosphere of disquiet and resentment among the UPA's members, Sonia Gandhi's cancellation of her proposed joint meetings with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, ostensibly because of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi's illness, was linked to the possibility of the Congress ditching the DMK in favour of the AIADMK.
It has to be noted that except for Naidu and Jayalalitha, the chances of the Congress coming closer to Nitish Kumar and the Left have been mentioned earlier. Among others, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad have all said that a post-poll scene may no longer see a continuation of the estrangement between the Congress and the Left.
Similarly, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was the first who said that the Congress and Nitish Kumar may come closer together. She has also expressed similar hopes about Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Arguably, some of these remarks can be seen as the kind of mind games which the parties play to unnerve each other. The references to Nitish Kumar are particularly relevant because he has undoubtedly been carving out a separate space for himself in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
First, his focus on development after the 15 wasted years of Lalu Prasad's rule as chief minister has established his reputation as a doer in Bihar. Second, his rising personal popularity has put his partner, the BJP, very much in the shade in the state. Third, Nitish Kumar has successfully eased out the former JD-U chief and convener of the NDA, George Fernandes, from the party. Fernandes was known as a close supporter of the BJP.
All these developments mark out Nitish Kumar as a person whose present links with the BJP are tenuous. He has also said that although he is in the NDA at present, he cannot say anything about the future. He has also refused to share the stage with Narendra Modi and ruled out supporting him as a prime minister, as some in the BJP want.
It is easy to understand, therefore, why both the Congress and the Third Front have been eager to enlist the Bihar chief minister in their ranks. It is the same with Patnaik, who recently severed his ties with the BJP, as did Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.
The BJP, on its part, is banking on a good showing in the states where it is in power on its own, such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka. Where the NDA is concerned, it should do well in Bihar though perhaps not in Punjab.
But what has been hampering its campaign is that, unlike the past, it does not have an emotive issue to propagate. It tried the "weak" prime minister line against Manmohan Singh for a while, but quickly dropped it when Manmohan Singh hit back by underlining LK Advani's vulnerabilities.
The BJP then took up the issue of recovering the black money stashed away in foreign banks by politicians and businessmen, hinting at the Congress's complicity in this matter. But it obviously does not have the kind of impact which the party's temple and terror planks earlier had.
However, the Congress has shot itself in the foot by the curious decision to withdraw the name of the controversial Italian businessman, Ottavio Quottrocchi, from Interpol's wanted list. Although the decision was the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI), there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the government had influenced this supposedly autonomous body.
The Quottrocchi episode could not but revive memories of the Bofors scandal with which the Rajiv Gandhi government was associated. If the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat riots haunt the BJP, it is the Bofors scandal which continues to hang like an albatross round the Congress's neck.
What is more, the worst affected by it is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Its reputation for probity is hampered both by the scandal and the suspected manipulation of the CBI to provide reprieve to suspects like Quottrocchi, who is believed to be one of the recipients of the kickbacks from the purchase of the Bofors guns in the mid-1980s that was then distributed among key Indians.
Both the two main contenders - the Congress and the BJP - are hobbled, therefore, by their past and present misdeeds that they may have to pay a price for as they both strive to form a government post-May 16.
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