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Ready for alliances, but Congress yet to get its house in order

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi | December 29, 2003 08:36 IST
Last Updated: December 29, 2003 08:47 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi may have announced that her party is open to alliances with like-minded parties to pose a credible challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance but its own house is not in order.

In Kerala, senior leader K Karunakaran's refusal to campaign in Ernakulam resulted in Congress losing the Lok Sabha seat to the opposition Left Democratic Front. In Punjab, dissidents are refusing to withdraw their demand for a change in leadership even after Chief Minister Amarinder Singh got rid of his media adviser B I S Chahal, who was unpopular among Congress MLAs.

It continues to be a marginal player in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar while its West Bengal unit is having difficulty identifying who are its opponents and who are its allies. It opposes the ruling Left Front but cannot ally with the Trinamul Congress, which is a member of the NDA, while at the Centre, it works in tandem with the Left parties.

The chances of continuing its alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra improved on Saturday when Sonia Gandhi announced that her party is keen on tie ups with like-minded parties.

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The Congress president, however, made no specific mention about the issue at the party rally in Mumbai though NCP chief Sharad Pawar has told the party to decide by December 31 if it wants to jointly contest the next assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra due in 2004. Pawar has even offered to overlook the issue of Gandhi's foreign origins in a bid to ensure that elements of the Sangh parivar and the Shiv Sena are kept out of power.

One of the reasons for the Congress lethargy could be attributed to its desire to get the NCP to endorse Gandhi as the alliance's prime ministerial candidate, revealed a veteran leader from Bihar.

[Note: On Sunday December 28, Gandhi said her party is open to an alliance with the NCP]

Despite considerable anticipation, the Congress chief did not spell out anything new at the rally. Political circles expected Gandhi to utilise the occasion to spell out her party's electoral strategy. The NDA came in for a fair share of criticism but nothing that has not been heard before.

"Our leadership under Madam Sonia Gandhi has things under control. Our electoral strategy is being formulated and will be known in due course," said party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi.

He said the electoral setback (Congress defeat in the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) had hardened the party's resolve to meet the BJP's challenge in the 2004 parliamentary polls.

The Congress is at least aware that it has a formidable task at hand. Hence, the search for possible allies is on.

In Andhra Pradesh, it has set its sight on the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, and in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh on the Gondwana People's Party.

A major problem area is the factionalism in Punjab, Kerala and Gujarat.

The standoff between Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Agriculture Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal simply refuses to die down. For the umpteenth time, the latter met Congress leaders on Saturday with her litany of complaints against the chief minister.

In Kerala, senior leader K Karunakaran has been giving a tough time to Chief Minister A K Antony, and in turn, the central leadership for several months now.

In Gujarat, dissidents led by former chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary say state party chief Shankersinh Vaghela's decision to constitute the lathi-wielding Shakti Dal is against the party's policy of non-violence. Chaudhary has threatened to take the issue to the high command.

With the BJP initiating preparations for the 2004 general elections, Gandhi will have to get used to taking decisions quickly, even if only to quell the impression that she is indecisive and, therefore, unequal in meeting the challenge of the BJP, which is aiming for 300+ Lok Sabha seats.

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