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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

After the Budget, the Congress finds itself out manoeuvred

No matter how glum he gets and regardless of whether he blames it all on Chandra Shekhar/Chandra Swami/ Deve Gowda and Narasimha Rao, there is no doubt that things have gone very badly wrong for Sitaram Kesri. Only three months ago, he was being talked about as the next prime minister of India.; now there is some question over whether he will win elections as full-fledged Congress president.

The euphoria that has greeted Palaniappan Chidambaram's Budget may have demonstrated the truth of that ancient political maxim, 'Give the Indian middle class ten per cent off income tax and they will hail you as a statesman,' but it has also bought Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda the support of the chattering classes.

No longer is the United Front perceived as a collection of rustic buffoons who have squatted temporarily at South Block while the Congress takes a brief breather. Poll the middle classes and you will find that more people want Deve Gowda as prime minister than are willing to put up with Kesri.

Of course, all this is -- by definition -- transient. The same industrialists who once hailed Chidambaram as their candidate for prime minister turned viciously against him within three months of his becoming finance minister and then changed their minds yet again within minutes of his Budget speech. As Rajiv Gandhi and V P Singh discovered, if you build on middle class support, you build on sand. And if you hope to flourish as the candidate of FICCI or the CII, give up now because whatever you do, it will never be enough.

So, the humble farmer might be in deep trouble again. And this new support will probably not last. But regardless of what the future brings, it is hard to deny that the United Front now has the kind of chattering class legitimacy that had always eluded it earlier.

Moreover, contrary to expectation, the United Front's constituents have -- by and large -- behaved themselves.

The same, alas, is not true of the Congress where Kesri's coup against Narasimha Rao, the vitriolic outpourings of Jagannath Mishra, and the Sharad Pawar factor have created an environment that is more Janata Dal than Congress. And while the post-Budget United Front clearly stands for liberalisation, it is hard to say what Kesri's Congress stands for; it certainly isn't economic reform.

What then, can the Congress do in the months ahead? Let us, first of all, concede that it is still possible for Kesri to replace Deve Gowda. The prime minister may make some terrible mistake and his government could well commit hara-kiri. Kesri could then demand all-party support on a keep the BJP-out platform.

But, let us also concede, that this now seems more and more unlikely. For Kesri to get the numbers required to take office, he needs the support of three men. And none of them is enthusiastic about backing him.

G K Moopanar has already made it clear that he wants the Congress to join the United Front government. In other words, the TMC is not about to leave the United Front to join the Congress.

Mulayam Singh Yadav has opened a channel to Kesri but as of now, he sees no profit in toppling Deve Gowda. He's getting what he wants out of the UF; what more can Kesri offer him?

Even Laloo Yadav seems to have veered around to the view that he will be no better off with Kesri than Deve Gowda. The Congress will be unable to stall the CBI investigations into the fodder scam and his Bihar Janata Dal will lose backward class support by linking up with the Congress.

Given these calculations, Kesri will have enormous difficulty in replacing Deve Gowda. That leaves him with only two options. The first is for the Congress to join this government -- as Moopanar has suggested. And the second is to prepare for an election.

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