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Sonia's call to Jaya: The political implications

By Neerja Chowdhury
May 16, 2011 19:17 IST
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The Congress may say that Sonia Gandhi's call to new Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was a courtesy call. But there was a clear message that the Congress president wanted to send, says Neerja Chowdhury.

In March 1999, when Sonia Gandhi met J Jayalalithaa at a tea party and exchanged pleasantries, it had led to the fall of the A B Vajpayee-led government at the Centre by one vote. It is another matter that the National Democratic Alliance was reelected to power later that year on a sympathy vote.

It is not surprising that Sonia Gandhi's congratulatory call to the victorious All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Jayalalithaa expressing a desire to meet her has set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Though Congress leaders are downplaying its political import, saying that the Congress president also called up other leaders who had won in the recent polls, there is clearly a message that Sonia Gandhi wanted to send.

The prime minister's congratulatory message to the AIADMK supremo could have sufficed to observe democratic niceties. But Sonia Gandhi's call brought the party into the picture and gave an "official" dimension to a personal gesture.

It goes without saying that the congratulatory message was calculated to break the ice between two women who have had a very difficult relationship, with the Congress chief obviously trying to open hitherto closed channels.

In time, the Congress may want to distance itself from a scam tainted DMK, which will not be so easy to do, in the immediate run. The gesture towards the AIADMK chief is bound to make the DMK livid. The Congress could run the risk of DMK leaders singing against some Congress leaders for their alleged involvement in the 2G scam, about whom there have been references by innuendo so far.

At the political level, dumping the DMK would make the Congress more dependent on other regional parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which the country's grand old party may want to avoid at this stage. For this could compel the Congress to soften its stand towards them, and affect its go-solo policy in Uttar Pradesh, crafted by Rahul Gandhi.

It is possible that Sonia Gandhi also had in mind the presidential elections due in July 2012. It is early days yet to configure the whole picture, since important states will be going to the polls in the first half of next year, which include Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Arithmetic will determine whether the Congress can swing the presidential election on its own or will have to affect a consensus.

The fineprint of the just-concluded elections does not present a rosy picture for the Congress. It heralds the weakening of the party in the south, which had stood by it even when it faced a total rout in the north.

The Congress has been wiped out in Tamil Nadu -- its tally came down to a measly 5. Apart from corruption and the misrule by the Karunanidhi family, what also proved to be the DMK-Congress' undoing was a silent anger against the central government for not preventing the massacre and sufferings of the Tamil in Sri Lanka at the hands of the Mahinda Rajapakse government.

The 'We Tamils' group was working in all the 63 Congress constituencies, where the party was contesting, with the sole aim of getting it defeated. Whether or not they managed to have an impact, the fact is that the Congress was knocked out.

Rebel Jaganmohan Reddy has cocked a snook at the Congress with his runaway victory in the Kadapa bypoll in Andhra Pradesh, following it up with a dharna in Guntur to take up the farmers' cause. He has hinted that he might try and pull down the Congress government in Hyderabad. The sword of Telengana continues to hang over the Congress' head, and the situation is becoming uncertain for the party with every passing day. It was Andhra Pradesh, which had brought the party to power in 2004 and in 2009 general elections, and this is a cause for immense worry for the Congress high command.

The party is out of power in Karnataka, and the BJP won in all the three assembly constituencies where bypolls were held. And if the Centre dismisses the B S Yeddyurappa government, accepting the recommendations of the Governor H R Bhardwaj, the Karnataka chief minister may well become a martyr. Already the entire the BJP has rallied behind him.

In Kerala, the Congress won by a whisker, with the UDF getting 72 seats and the LDF 68. Had the Left managed just three more seats, it would have continued in power, particularly as in five seats, the Congress won with less than 750 votes. The Congress-led UDF should have swept Kerala, going by the results of the 2009 general elections and the local elections held last year. But the party has shown a decline in the last year, even as it forms a government in the state.

It is not as if the Congress is comfortably placed in the northern states, be it Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand. Therefore Sonia Gandhi's anxiety about the need to win new friends, is natural.

As for Jayalalithaa, she too may want a cordial relationship with the Congress because, like Mamata Banerjee, she would need a hefty economic package from the Centre, to deliver on the 'pro-poor' schemes she has promised. But it will be difficult for her to go for a tieup with the Congress so soon after the elections, when the state so soundly rejected the UPA. The situation has moved on from the pre-poll days when Jayalalithaa had sent feelers to the Congress and offered to mobilise the support of 'others' in the Lok Sabha to make up for the 18 MPs represented by the DMK. (The AIADMK has only 9 MPs in the Lok Sabha ).

Sonia may also want to prevent the AIADMK leader from gravitating towards other regional parties to form an anti-Congress front, by trying to kindle a hope in her about the possibility of tie-up in the future. But Jayalalithaa lost no time in doing just that. She made a point of inviting regional leaders to her swearing -- including TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, RLD leader Ajit Singh, and CPI's A B Baradhan and D Raja.

The senior CPI-M leaders, also invited, could not attend because of their politburo meet in Delhi. Equally significant, she invited Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, with whom she has enjoyed a cordial relationship and had hosted a 48-dish lunch for him some years ago.

At the moment, these are only signals. But in Indian politics, gestures, body language, nuanced utterances have their own import.

The recent assembly elections have marked a decisive and runaway success of regional parties in two large states of India, represented by the two women, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa. And Sonia Gandhi's phone call to Jayalalithaa betrayed the Congress' vulnerability today.

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Neerja Chowdhury