Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE CONGRESS 'LASHKAR' IS STANDING STILL, BUT SURROUNDED

Laloo Prasad Yadav has done a Chow En Lai on Sonia Gandhi. Quite like the Chinese Prime Minister who kept saying "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" (Indians and Chinese are brothers) to an unsuspecting Nehru till the Chinese attacked and routed India in the heights of the Himalayas, Laloo Yadav has shocked the Congress. While the Chinese PM stopped chanting that mantra of deceit after he had shown Nehru his place, Laloo Yadav continues to swear loyalty to Sonia Gandhi even after stabbing her brazenly in the chest. That is obviously only because he wants to stay on as the minister of that "soney ki chidiya" (sparrow of gold), Indian Railways, till the very last day.

A few days back, old rivals Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, ganged up and divided Bihar among themselves, leaving the Congress fuming and crying with only three seats out of the 40 that Bihar sends to the Lok Sabha. Although the Congress had won only four seats in the last elections and had done nothing to re-build its base in the last five years, this was one humiliation that the national party just could not swallow. So, the party made empty threats of contesting more seats in the hope that Laloo would give it a few more face-saving seats.

But Laloo Yadav and Paswan are not straight blokes who will cut their own feet to prove their proclaimed "loyalty". They know too well that the stakes in these elections are high and post-poll possibilities endless. No matter what the surveys say about the prospects of the Congress, it is evident that they can sense that the party is in serious decline and is likely to emerge considerably weakened, if not mauled, after the elections. When the king's lashkar (elephant) is surrounded in battle, smart allies know that the best time to negotiate treacherous deals that keep them secure and make them more powerful, is before it falls, not after.

So, in response to the threat of the Congress that it will contest in 37 seats, Laloo Yadav has hit back saying that he will put up candidates even in the three constituencies that he has left for the Congress. In addition, he has announced that he will campaign for Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP. It may be recalled that Mulayam Yadav's alliance with the Congress had fallen through earlier and his party is putting up candidates in 74 of the 80 constituencies in the state.

The fallout of the humiliation of the Congress in Bihar has taken it toll in Jharkhand too. Stung by Laloo Yadav and Paswan, the Congress hastily broke off its alliance with them in that state and announced an alliance with the JMM there. In a tit-for-tat response, the two parties announced a seat sharing arrangement, leaving only two seats for Laloo Yadav and none for Paswan. But, before that news could sink in, JMM leader Durga Soren broke off the alliance and vowed to contest all 14 seats, saying " Congress has betrayed us".

In the cow belt, the Congress lashkar has been all but felled. In Uttarakhand, which sends five MPs, the party is in a direct fight with the BJP and will at best win one seat. Thus, out of the 139 seats that these four states represent in the Lok Sabha, the Congress tally will most likely remain in single digits as against 18 projected by a Times of India survey. More importantly, there will be no seats in the names of its pre-poll allies, against 14 projected by the same survey.

Mulayam Yadav and Laloo Yadav both realise that Mayawati is likely to be the strongest claimant for the post of PM should she get more seats than the former. So, while swearing undying loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, Laloo Yadav has decided to campaign for Mulayam Yadav so that the latter emerges at the top of the heap in UP. It is probably for this reason that Mulayam Yadav was not willing to leave more than 17 seats for the Congress, something that was not acceptable to that party. Although the alliance has failed, Mulayam Yadav, like Laloo, has left the door slightly ajar for the Congress by not putting up candidates against it in six constituencies, including those of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Clearly, like Mayawati, he too wants to get into a position where he can get the Congress to support him as the next PM.

The case of Sharad Pawar is almost identical. He too has smelled blood, as has the Shiv Sena which wants to see him, a Maharashtrian, as the next PM. With the state sending 48 MPs, the combined bid of both the NCP and the Shiv Sena for the top job for Pawar may well be formidable. No matter that they are in opposite camps now.

The unending Indian Premier League (IPL) saga, to my mind, has a serious political angle. The NCP and Congress have not yet been able to finalise a seat-sharing arrangement in Maharashtra; the IPL too has not yet been cleared. While BJP ruled states are willing to host matches, Congress ruled states are posing one hurdle after another on security grounds. It is not a coincidence that Sharad Pawar is also the boss of the BCCI, and the IPL tournament is worth a few thousand crore rupees.

The Congress does not trust Sharad Pawar and is wary of his ambitions. There seems to be a strong link between the finalisation of the seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties and the iterinary of the IPL. That is why there is now talk of shifting the tournament to South Africa. Sharad Pawar has a political surprise up his sleeve no doubt, a surprise that he will spring only after the IPL is cleared, or after the elections. The Congress knows that too; that may be why the government is delaying the IPL clearance till Pawar inks a formal alliance.

Flash. News is just coming in that the IPL will be held overseas: Is the war between the Congress and Sharad Pawar set to escalate?

Unfortunately, the Congress seems to using bullying tactics that are founded on an increasing weakness on ground. These are not going to get it even one additional seat. It is actually not in a position to negotiate with any of its allies across the country because they all know how weak it is now. Be it politics or war, you can negotiate only on the basis of strength and not as a weakling seeking reward for good past behaviour or some such thing. Chou En Lai rammed home that lesson in 1962 and Laloo has done so now. But, clearly, it remains unlearned by the Congress party whether it is dealing with China, Pakistan or politicians within the country.

Sensing that a historic shift is under way, and that there is much that she can salvage from the crumbling ruins of the once mighty Congress party, Mayawati kicked off her election campaign from Left stronghold Kerala yesterday. At a rally in Thiruvanathapuram, she not only did not make any mention of the Third Front but said that she would try to form the next government on her own and undo the anti-people policies pursued during the last 61 years.

The Congress Lashkar is standing still. But it has been surrounded from all sides. If Pawar too does a Laloo, as the outcome of the IPL drama indicates he might, then expect that the momentum generated by the trail of events over the last few months will lead to the Congress facing an unprecedented rout almost all across the nation. It is not just smart politicians who can spot a sinking ship; even the common man can. The only people who invariably fail to spot a negative wave are pollsters. Perhaps they are missing out this time too.
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3. Mayawati's hug of death