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SETTING THE PRIORITY RIGHT
- Bihar shows the Congress's habit of shooting itself in the foot

Contradictions are supposedly the zest of life. Contradictions, however, act as spoilers of sweet dreams too. Consider the conflation of some recent events. Till a while ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party was facing a major crisis of existence. Ejected from power at the Centre by popular verdict, it had lapsed into intramural squabbles. Those cherishing the concept of a secular, forward-looking India were taking heart from this development. Things to them could not look any sunnier. Suddenly, there is a major turnaround. A resurgent BJP is making mayhem of the current parliamentary session. The hullabaloo over the Volcker report is nothing extraordinary. In the past too, rumpuses over shady financial deals by persons in the proximity of power have led to raucous debates in parliament; the debates have duly died down. If the controversy over the Volcker report appears to have a much sharper edge, that is because it reflects, Uma Bharti notwithstanding, the resurrected confidence of the BJP. It cannot quite believe its good luck: in the midst of death, it has stumbled into bubbling life.

The change in fortune is of course on account of the stunning outcome of the Bihar poll: it has recreated the opening the BJP had, in its mode of despondency, feared had closed for ever. And this is precisely where the role of contradictions has emerged in the fullest glare, contradictions that afflict the Congress. The pretence of forgetfulness displayed by the president of the Congress is breathtaking. She has laid the blame for the debacle constituents of the United Progressive Alliance have suffered in Bihar at the door of Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan: if only these two gentlemen had not indulged in their unseemly personal feuding, everything, she claims, would have been hunky-dory in Bihar. Her ex post a-plague-on-both-your-houses primness is ingenuous, but that is about all that can be said of it. If only she would care to remember, Paswan's vaulting ambition was, on the eve of the February poll this year, given a particular boost by her and her party. Lalu Prasad had offered the Congress as many as 30 constituencies to contest, with an entreaty not to encourage Paswan's deviance.

But elected legislators have their own urges and compulsions: investment must be recouped, there was little point in being elected to the assembly if the loaves and fishes of office remained beyond reach. The NDA, with some smart devilry on the part of their leaders, succeeded in winning over a fair number from Paswan's flock and was on the verge of taking over Bihar. At this juncture, the unnerved Congress leadership committed a second, even greater, blunder. The governor's office was availed of to enact an eleventh rate drama: legislators allegedly were being purchased, morality and democracy were in peril, the assembly was accordingly dissolved and, pending fresh elections, the governor ' a long-standing Congress hack' was set to rule the state. The consequences of these ugly manoeuvres have been far-reaching. Widespread public revulsion at the decision to dissolve the assembly was bad enough. Worse was the Supreme Court verdict declaring the dissolution to be unconstitutional, although, taking into account the practical circumstances, the nation's highest judiciary did not stand in the way of fresh elections.

A footloose Ram Vilas Paswan could not be re-bridled. The two cabinet members from Bihar in the UPA government, Lalu Prasad and Paswan, therefore skippered in the October-November polls two separate anti-NDA combinations. They fought as much against each other as against the BJP combine. Confusion abounded, caste alignments got splintered, the Janata Dal (United)-BJP marched to a comfortable victory. Because it was so keen to regain its ancient empire, the Congress, generally taken to be the citadel of last-ditch anti-fundamentalism, has thus been instrumental in creating a new opening for the so-called communal savages.

What is galling is that the Congress does not even have the grace to repent at leisure; the implication of what its president has suggested is as if Lalu and Paswan fell out with each other on their own. No Madame, the facts tell a different story. That apart, the talent Buta Singh displayed in his role as governor had also the hallmark of long Congress tutelage.

Those who argue that the secular crusade in the country against fundamentalism cannot be advanced by electing the Congress at its head have therefore a point. The feudal imperial pursuits of that party override its other concerns. If, in its attempt to reconquer the imperial citadel it had occupied in the early post-independence decades, it considers it necessary to indulge in dubious exercises such as the ones it involved itself in Bihar, it would perhaps continue to do so even on future occasions. The party is not yet reconciled to the reality that it enjoys power at the Centre through the courtesy of others who deserve to be respected and not conspired against. If life for it is not worth living till as long as the empire it claims to be its bequest is not won back, it is in danger of losing whatever influence it still retains within the polity. Such is the lesson derivable from the sorry experience of Bihar, in case the party is interested in drawing any.

Perhaps it is not. The party, it often seems, exists in a make-believe milieu disdainful of the facts of life. The dream its acolytes dream is not just a regained empire in the fullest of splendour and regalia; the empire has to have its empress too, omniscient and omnipotent. On the day the bad tidings were coming from Bihar, some other results filtered in from across the country. Sunil Dutt's daughter won the by-election on behalf of the Congress in the Lok Sabha seat in Mumbai her father had occupied, and Narayan Rane, the joiner from Shiv Sena into the Congress, gave a drubbing to his former party in the by-election for the assembly seat in Konkan. Neither Priya Dutt nor Rane deviated from the standard line: even as they were receiving the certificate of election from the deemed officials, they solemnly informed the world that their victory was solely due to the magical power of their leader, Sonia Gandhi. The Congress lost the by-election for the Lok Sabha seat at Thiruvananthapuram; it is not known whether the losing Congress candidate had the temerity to declare that he had no share of responsibility for his defeat, it was entirely the doing of his leader, Sonia Gandhi.

Resisting the communal bigots is not the priority; paying homage to the empress and the dynasty she is wedded to is.

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