Discontent as Congress fights with its back to the wall

Published on Apr 17, 2004 08:21 PM IST

The first murmurs of discontent are being heard in India's main opposition Congress party as it inches towards national elections.

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PTI | ByIndo-Asian News Service, New Delhi

The first murmurs of discontent are being heard in India's main opposition Congress party as it inches towards national elections it hardly seems in a position to win.

Although the country's oldest party is not admitting this and its president Sonia Gandhi remains confidence personified, doubts are beginning to be raised within the party ranks.

But the dissatisfaction is still largely muted. The main grouse is not just over the Congress failure to chalk out a tie-up where it matters most - Uttar Pradesh - but the way the party has been seen to be almost grovelling before what are essentially regional outfits.

The drubbing the Congress received in December 2003 at the hands of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh assembly elections had weakened Sonia Gandhi's hands considerably.

So when she went around sewing alliances to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in early parliamentary elections, the Congress had to accept less than fair terms from increasingly assertive allies.

And, although she succeeded in her efforts in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, her failure was most glaring in India's most populous and politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.

Realising that Uttar Pradesh's 80 Lok Sabha seats would decide who goes on to form a government in New Delhi, the Congress - whose support base has shrunk in the state in recent years - first courted the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Gandhi held meetings with the BSP's moody chief Mayawati, angering in the process the other key party in the state, the ruling Samajwadi Party, which had counted the Congress as an ally.

So when Mayawati finally turned down the Congress, a spurned Gandhi turned to the Samajwadi Party, only to face a further humiliating rebuff. This is downright humiliation, one that could prove costly in the April-May ballot, argue party members and supporters.

As if this was not enough, instead of putting up a united front, Congress leaders are fighting among themselves in almost every state, forcing the BJP to say that Gandhi's lieutenants are locked in a virtual civil war.

Even in states like Bihar and Tamil Nadu, Congress members claim they have been given a step-motherly treatment by its strong regional allies although the party chief went out of her way to keep them in good humour.

Bihar's ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has allotted the Congress a measly four seats out of the total 40. The DMK gave away the Congress-held Pondicherry seat to the PMK.

In Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress is itching to return to power after a gap of nine years, its hurriedly cemented alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) has run into rough weather.

Congress veterans admit that a problem exists, but are giving it a nice spin.

"We know there is infighting in states like Andhra Pradesh," Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal told IANS. "But that is because our people are smelling a victory in the state, and everyone wants a ticket.

"If 50 people fight for a piece of cake, everyone cannot be satisfied."

Argued a Congress insider: "Going by this logic, since there is no major infighting in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, does it mean we are headed for a disaster in these places?"

The Congress has no answers. One problem is it has been reduced to an also-ran in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu that together elect 201 of the Lok Sabha's 545 members.

But spokesman Sibal argues that everyone is missing the point.

"Our mission is to bring to power a secular alliance. Whatever we are doing is for this alliance," he said. "In Uttar Pradesh we still hope an alliance will be formed. If it does not happen, we will go it alone."

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