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Congress too slow for coalition test

There is little doubt the Congress state leadership in Bangalore overplayed its hand in taking on its partner the Janata Dal (Secular) over the last few months.

More seriously, the impending fall of the N. Dharam Singh-led government will fuel serious doubts about the high command. In an age when deft manoeuvres with allies and partners mean so much, the party has been found leaden-footed and slow.

The Dal (S) stole the thunder in the Assembly elections of May 2004. While the BJP rode the wave in the Lok Sabha polls, it fell far short of the halfway mark in the Vidhan Sabha.

The post-poll accord between H.D. Deve Gowda and the Congress united them in the hunger for power but also developed strains very early on. In one instance after another, the Congress high command stepped in to soothe the former Prime Ministerís ruffled feathers.

The stage for a break was set in late 2004 when deputy chief minister S. Siddaramaiah bolted the Dal (S), floated his own outfit and developed close ties with the Congress.

The latter won 13 of the 27 district-level local bodies and the rebel leaderís supporters helped it in another four. In the long run, this threatened Deve Gowda in not one but two ways.

First, it asserted the drive for power among the large but politically disorganised Kuruba community. The dominant castes like Vokkaligas (to which Deve Gowda belongs) or the Lingayats could not stomach this.

Further, it undercut the political ambitions of the former Prime Ministerís son, Kumaraswamy, who fought his first-ever election as recently as 1996. In the process, push came to shove and the son reached out to the BJP, no longer a political pariah.

The Congress first trusted in Deve Gowda too much. It let him steal the thunder on an issue of acquisition of farmland by industry, a contentious issue in both Bangalore and Mysore. In contrast to the English press, he won encomiums in the Kannada press as champion of farmersí interests.

The confrontation with N.R. Naryana Murthy of Infosys was primed to reach a large rural constituency. It was to show Deve Gowda as a friend of the sons of the soil, the Mannina Maga, in terms of tillers of the soil.

Next, state Congress leaders kept saying they were ready for polls any time. This was logical given the strong showing in the December polls to local bodies. But it was all talk and no action.

Instead of giving the Congress the edge with early dissolution, it opened the door to the BJP. The threats served as warning to a wily, recalcitrant ally.

The fact is chief minister Dharam Singh was no match for Deve Gowda, the man who ruined Ramakrishna Hegdeís political career and went on to be the Prime Minister, if only for a brief spell. Nor was Mallikarjun Kharge able to read the tea leaves right.

Both under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress, while often partisan, was rarely so slow to act or react. Despite having the intelligence machinery in its control both in New Delhi and Bangalore, it missed all the smoke signals.

Coalitions are shaky affairs, especially when formed of two such antagonistic parties. Unlike the Nationalist Congress Party in neighbouring Maharashtra with whom the Congress shared power for five years and managed to forge pre-poll ties in central and state levels, the Janata parivar is an inherently anti-Congress force.

No one would have missed the tone in Deve Gowdaís voice when he referred scribes to the Congressís role in removing him from the post of Prime Minister in 1997. It matters little to him that then Congress president Sitaram Kesri was himself soon ousted by Sonia Gandhi.

His fear is that the larger national party will undercut his party and its base. This is exactly what happened in the early 1990s, before Deve Gowda joined hands with his arch-rivals and revitalised Janata.

There is one significant difference, though. It is one that will still give the Congress hope. Tying up with the BJP will cost him dear in a state where Muslims are such a significant force and the Baba Budan issue certain to be raked up by saffron outfits.

Further, running a ship in tandem with the BJP may actually backfire on Kumaraswamy. Despite recent setbacks, this is the one southern state where the former has long been a force to reckon with.

None of this is consolation for the Congress. The fact is that it has been caught napping. Itís a question that needs to be posed in an age of coalitions and loose accords.

Coalition politics is about eating up a partnerís political space and setting the agenda. The Congress has only played that game for long in Kerala where it is a major player. Where it is evenly matched or has a relatively large partner, it fumbles, often losing the edge.

Is the Congress really up to the task'

What holds good in Bangalore also applies in New Delhi. Not that there is any threat to the Manmohan Singh regime. But the ill tidings from the south carry their own message.

Soniaís common touch and Manmohanís clean image are all very well. But there is no substitute for hard-knuckled jousting with other parties, even ones that it shares power with.

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