The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fatal shift for Congress

Nov. 22: The Congress has two private views on the Bihar result. One, which is possibly more public than private, holds that the defeat was a “blessing in disguise”. The truly private opinion ' of senior leaders ' is that it will have far-reaching consequences for the UPA’s longevity.

First, the Bihar outcome is a setback to Sonia Gandhi, the UPA chief, who failed to bring the warring alliance partners, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, together. Her strategy to shift ' between February and November ' from Paswan to Lalu Prasad, as the poll ally in Bihar, has proved to be a fatal error.

Other than keeping the Congress the minor player it has become in the state, it may have made it easier for the NDA to post a landslide victory. In retrospect, it would seem Sonia was right in going with Paswan in February as it helped divide the anti-incumbency, or anti-Lalu, votes. By tying up with Lalu, the Congress might have ensured consolidation of anti-Lalu votes.

Sonia was repeatedly advised to hold a meeting with Lalu and Paswan and do some plain-speaking. But she dithered. A section of her advisers told her that it was not prudent to “interfere” in the internal matters of other political parties.

Those favouring a stronger line had counselled her that she should stick to her position of presenting a united face of the UPA. Digvijay Singh, the AICC general secretary in charge of Bihar, twice suggested the exit of Paswan from the Union cabinet, but the proposal was summarily rejected.

The question is already being asked what she would do ' turn a blind eye to or “interfere” ' if her allies in Tamil Nadu, such as the DMK, PMK and MDMK, clash.

Sonia’s choice of point man for Bihar, too, showed a degree of uncertainty. She dropped the Arjun Singh-Makhan Lal Fotedar combine when middle-rung party leaders targeted the “old and jaded” faces of the party. Digvijay was repeatedly heard referring to the laws of nature: “Old leaves should pave the way for new ones.”

The result in Bihar has shown that in politics, younger age is neither a sufficient condition for success nor a proof of acumen.

Some Congress leaders were gloating over the verdict, claiming that the party had got rid of the “baggage of Lalu” and combining it with the bravado that the country’s oldest party would stand on its own to usher in a new era.

Judging by the experience of Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Sonia knows it is nearly impossible to bounce back. She is also aware that similar words were pronounced about Uttar Pradesh when the Congress had gone alone in February 2002.

After those Assembly polls, she was going through the results and her reading glasses nearly dropped when she realised that as many as 335 out of 402 party nominees had forfeited deposits.

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