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Why the Congress needs to fear its allies

Last updated on: October 10, 2011 12:10 IST

Team Anna's open assault bodes ill for the Congress in the long term, but it is the so-called 'allies' who can do truly grievous damage in the here and now, says T V R Shenoy.

Which should the Congress fear more, Anna Hazare's open call to arms in Hisar, or the (slightly) concealed hostility of its 'allies'?

We are, as I write, still three days away from a single vote being cast, and it shall be a week before we know the results of the by-election to the Hisar Lok Sabha seat. But we already know that Team Anna has gone into the campaign far better prepared than the Congress.

First, the choice of Hisar as the battlefield was absolutely brilliant. Haryana is supposed to be a Congress bastion, one of those increasingly rare states where the Congress can rule on its own. The reputation is deserved but Hisar itself is a different story altogether.

The Congress won Hisar from the first general election in 1952 through to the fifth general election in 1971. But that changed decisively in 1977, when Inder Singh Sheokand wrested Hisar for the Janata Party; from the sixth general election up to the fifteenth, the Congress won only three times in ten contests.

Hisar has voted for a plethora of parties the other seven times, for Charan Singh's Janata Party-Secular, for Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikas Party, for Om Parkash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal, and, most recently for Bhajan Lal's Haryana Janhit Congress. To cut a long story short, Hisar is fertile ground for non-Congress parties.

Team Anna's decision to campaign in Hisar reinforces a feeling that first arose during Anna Hazare's two fasts earlier in the year -- that the Anna Hazare group is not just more 'moral' (for want of a better word) than Team Sonia but also a lot smarter.

A single by-election was never going to change the balance of power in the Lok Sabha. A few weeks ago a poor performance by the Congress would have been put down to a sympathy wave in the wake of Bhajan Lal's death. Come to that, who thought a month ago that so much media attention would be paid to a small town in Haryana?

Unless the Congress upsets all calculations and wins a massive victory -- which sounds unlikely at this stage -- Team Anna has scored tactical points before a vote is cast. It has brought the focus back to its own agenda and it has again pushed the Congress into a corner.

What lessons might the Congress's (already restive) 'allies' draw should the Congress perform poorly in Hisar? The counting of votes begins in Hisar on October 17, which by coincidence is the same day that voting in held in the first phase of local body elections in Tamil Nadu.

The DMK has already announced that it has snapped its alliance with the Congress as far as the approaching local body elections are concerned. Explaining this decision -- apparently taken after 'deep introspection' -- M Karunanidhi announced that this was because civic body polls were fought on 'local issues' where Lok Sabha and assembly elections were about forming 'progressive' governments.

This explanation, quite frankly, does not hold water. In the last round of local body elections the DMK gave the Congress 26% of the seats that the alliance contested. I do not believe that the DMK can improve from its truly dismal performance in the last assembly election by fighting without the Congress. This smacks of a warning shot, to remind the Congress that it must not take the DMK for granted.

There are other allies who will be keen on sending that same reminder to the Congress. Even as the local body elections in Tamil Nadu draw to a close in October, November will see the start of preparations for the civic polls in Maharashtra. Up for grabs are no fewer than 195 Municipal Councils, 12 Municipal Corporations, and 27 Zilla Parishads.

The Nationalist Congress Party, the Congress's ally both in Delhi and in Mumbai, seems to be getting ready to go it alone. I understand that it is not so much the party president, Sharad Pawar, that is pushing this split as it is his nephew, Ajit Pawar (who is also currently the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra).

The Congress will have no breathing space even after the Maharashtra civic body polls draw to an end because it shall then be the turn of West Bengal. And here the Congress is even worse placed than in Tamil Nadu and in Maharashtra because it has little or no leverage on its nominal ally, the Trinamool Congress. Mamata Bannerjee possesses an unassailable majority in the West Bengal assembly, not requiring even one Congress MLA to stabilise her ministry.

The chief minister of West Bengal has not lost a single opportunity to rub its impotence in the face of the Congress. She single-handedly scuttled the signing of a treaty with Bangladesh on sharing the Teesta waters. She has stridently criticised the Manmohan Singh ministry's repeated decisions to raise petrol prices, and succeeded in keeping the issue of raising cooking gas prices off the table. And, if some Congressmen are to be believed, Trinamool Congress workers now feel free to perpetrate 'atrocities' against their Congress allies.

Complaints about the situation in West Bengal have apparently been flowing to Rahul Gandhi's desk, but the brute logic of the Lok Sabha's arithmetic prevents any senior Congress leader from speaking out against Mamata Bannerjee, or even against the DMK and the Nationalist Congress Party.

A defeat in the Hisar by-election would not make any difference to the numbers in the Lok Sabha for the simple reason that the Congress had not won that seat in 2009 anyhow. But alienating the Trinamool Congress (19 Lok Sabha MPs), the DMK (18 Lok Sabha MPs), and the Nationalist Congress Party (nine Lok Sabha MPs in addition to all the MLAs in Maharashtra) is another story. Those 46 MPs are crucial to the survival of the Manmohan Singh ministry.

To answer the question posed at the start of this column, Team Anna's open assault bodes ill for the Congress in the long term, but it is the so-called 'allies' who can do truly grievous damage in the here and now.

T V R Shenoy