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Tread with caution

Sonia gandhi’s admission that price rise was one of the factors that contributed to the Congress’s defeats in Uttarakhand and Punjab is a clear signal to the Centre that immediate steps need to be taken to check both inflation and the steep hike in cost of several commodities, writes Pankaj Vohra.
None | By Pankaj Vohra
UPDATED ON MAR 12, 2007 12:15 AM IST

Sonia gandhi’s admission that price rise was one of the factors that contributed to the Congress’s defeats in Uttarakhand and Punjab is a clear signal to the Centre that immediate steps need to be taken to check both inflation and the steep hike in cost of several commodities.

The admission made at the Congress Parliamentary Party meet, in the presence of the Prime Minister, assumes significance since it is on this issue alone that some of the party’s allies may start targeting its leaders for their inability to initiate counter-measures. If it is not addressed swiftly, the issue can provide more leverage to the Left to hit out at the Congress and make it singularly responsible for these anti-people measures.

While the Prime Minister, in his reply to the motion of thanks in Parliament, did refer to the subject and said remedial measures were being taken and his government would not hesitate in doing the required course correction, some of his colleagues do not seem to have got the message. A junior minister argued foolishly that if people could not afford high-priced stuff, they should settle for food items meant for dogs and other animals. It is this mindset that needs correction. Such ministers should be shown the door for their inability to empathise with the common people.

Any government can fall on the price rise issue. It has happened in the past and may happen again in the future. The Congress needs to be extremely cautious now since the government led by it will be completing three years in office in May. It has faced a string of defeats that began with the Maharashtra polls and may extend to Delhi’s civic elections in April, and the big one in UP. The party will also run into a challenging phase when the presidential elections take place in July. If it is unable to get its candidate elected, the consequences may not be very good.

The three-year mark in a coalition government can be difficult for the principal party, since the onus of keeping the flock together rests with it. Allies can easily flirt with other like-minded parties and explore other options, even while remaining in the coalition and criticising key ministries from within. The UPA allies are not welded together by any ideological commitment. They are together on the basis of a common minimum programme. It is power that cements them. If any of them feels that power could slip away on account of a reason like the price rise, they may explore other options. It can be the most trying time for the principal party, which could end up getting all the flak, without being able to hit out at those who are targeting it from within the coalition. So far, Sonia has been able to keep everyone together. She has shown statesmanship in accommodating and defending coalition partners. She has acted more like the UPA chairperson than as Congress president. It is because of this that she has earned the respect of the UPA allies.

But in politics, things can change fast and it does not take long for friends to turn foes. Within the Congress itself, the cases of Natwar Singh and Kuldeep Bishnoi are recent instances. Bhajan Lal has also indicated that he may part company with the Congress soon. This unhappiness has started with the Congress and may spread to its allies if the Congress continues with its string of defeats. No one likes to lose and everyone wants to be on the winning side. There are several players within the present council of ministers who have unrealised political ambitions. These could come to the fore in event of a crisis.

It is because of this that the second part of what Sonia said assumes significance. She mentioned other reasons for the party’s defeat like indiscipline, poor organisation, wrong choice of candidates and one-upmanship. Her advice was that Congressmen should give up personal ambitions and keep the interest of the party in mind at all times. While she spoke in relation to Punjab and Uttarakhand, the message had a larger connotation. Sonia understands what affects her party. The reference to one-upmanship was equally applicable to her group of advisors.

In fact, it is poor advice, or the lack of it, from some advisors that has resulted in the party landing itself in a mess at some places and losing elections where it should have won. Leaders with little or no knowledge of ground realities are becoming instrumental in enunciating the policy on states. For instance in Punjab and Uttarakhand, some Congress leaders involved in the campaign or deciding on candidates knew very little about the states or the voters’ psyche. Others claimed that they knew, but were surprised at the results. It proved that their understanding was superficial.

The Congress needs to carry itself with utmost political caution. Many of Sonia’s close aides have proved their inadequacy in handling sensitive situations. Some of them could not even win the states for the party despite being Chief Ministers. Everyone knows that the Congress president is a well-intentioned person. She is not hankering for power unlike many of our other politicians. In order to serve the people continuously, she may also have to alter her strategies occasionally and perhaps also opt for more experienced aides. Between us.

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