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Congress in mood to outsmart BJP, NCP

Congressmen in Maharashtra are afraid their party president Sonia Gandhi has already been persuaded (by AICC general secretaries) into an alliance with the Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party for the 2004 elections.

india Updated: Jul 09, 2003 14:18 IST

Congressmen in Maharashtra are afraid their party president Sonia Gandhi has already been persuaded (by AICC general secretaries) into an alliance with the Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party for the 2004 elections.

Pawar and his party men are afraid she is yet to be convinced. These fears have become the focal point of the brainstorming undertaken by both parties in the last couple of weeks.

Early this month Congressmen got together under the leadership of Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to take stock of their prospects at the 2004 polls. The Congress wants a simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly poll as had happened in 1999 at which the party did much better than everybody expected.

Despite the BJP's decision at their chintan baithak recently not to go for an early poll, the Congress in Maharashtra believes the Centre could yet change its mind depending on the results of the elections to the four

Congress ruled states this year. Although the party believes that all its four chief ministers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and New Delhi are strongly entrenched and that the BJP has no leadership worth its name to match the intelligence of these four Congress stalwarts, they are keeping their fingers crossed on the outcome.

"But if they go for an early Lok Sabha poll, we know what to do,'' says

Govindrao Adik, former Maharashtra Pradesh Congress president and currently Minister for Agriculture in the Shinde cabinet. Although he does not spell it out, the local Congress leadership has decided that they shall go to both the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls together. And if the BJP advances the parliamentary polls, the Congress-led government in Maharashtra will recommend dissolution of the Assembly so that elections can be held simultaneously.

"I have information that the BJP is of a mind for an early Lok Sabha poll,'' Shinde said recently, though even he fights shy of admitting that the Congress will attempt to outwit the BJP on this score in Maharashtra.

"We will go for our full term,'' the CM insists. However, discretion could be the better part of valour for there is another more crucial reason for the Congress to wish for simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections -- and that is to outsmart the NCP. Former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is leading the pack on this front. According to him Sharad Pawar cannot insist for an alliance for the Assembly elections and seek to go it alone in the Lok Sabha and he might be able to manipulate such a happening if the polls are held separately.

``The only issue that divides the Congress and the NCP is the leadership question. He should declare he has nothing against Sonia Gandhi and then we will have no problems about a tie-up.''

What Deshmukh leaves unsaid is the fact that once such a declaration comes forth, the raison d'etre of the NCP would be over. Pawar is aware of the pitfall and the trap being laid for him by the Congress. So although desperate for a tie up he has gone a bit ballistic on the Congress for this very reason.

Congress workers who told Shinde and Deshmukh that they did not want an alliance with the NCP said they were willing to face the risk of a defeat if it meant emasculating Pawar and putting him out of the reckoning forever.

"We can always return at the next elections. But we cannot say the same of the NCP,'' one worker said.

The point has not escaped the NCP. It has thus upped the ante and, even before an alliance can be spoken about, demanded more than a fair share of seats. The pro-alliance group has been speaking of giving the NCP all the seats where it was the first runner up and that still gives the Congress two thirds of the 288 seats in the Assembly. Now the NCP says they did far better at the Zilla Parishad elections and must have those winning seats as well.

Wracked by scams in the sugar co-operatives and snowed under allegations by social activist Anna Hazare, the NCP is clearly pushing its luck. So far the Congress has only turned Pawar a cold shoulder. And it is galling to him that it is Sonia he must still look to for a thaw. His future still depends on the Congress president's good graces an irony of fate that has escaped very few in Maharashtra.

First Published: Jul 09, 2003 14:18 IST