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Friend or foe' Cong wonders

April 19: Campaigning in Kerala, Manmohan Singh called the Congress’s rival there, the Left, a “valued” ally. In the middle of elections in Bengal, where too the Congress is ranged against the Left, Pranab Mukherjee talked about Pakistan and Iran.

What will Sonia Gandhi say tomorrow when she addresses three meetings in Bengal'

The Assembly elections have entered the tricky stage for the two allies in Delhi and competitors in Kerala and Bengal ' tricky particularly for the Congress’s central leaders who cannot afford to anger their cadre, nor can they go out and attack the Left with all guns blazing.

Just how tricky was shown by the Prime Minister today. Speaking at a news conference in Kochi, he described the Left as “valued allies in Delhi. We’ve been together for two years. There are always some problems when working in a coalition government and I’m confident that whatever problems there may be in the future, we have the will and the good fortune to resolve them in an amicable manner”.

That’s not nice for the Congress in Kerala, is it' In power there, the party is fighting what most observers have written off as a losing battle.

Asked about the political impact of Singh’s statement, state Congress general secretary M.I. Shanavas offered a long explanation.

“We’re not like the Left, sinking to petty squabbles for the sake of a few votes. CPM general secretary Prakash Karat can’t hold a candle to Dr Singh who holds aloft the coalition dharma even when his party is engaging the Left in a fierce battle in Kerala.”

Congress sources in Delhi, too, struck a noble pose: as the Prime Minister of the country, Singh will have to keep the “larger picture” in mind. He would perhaps be the first Prime Minister in history to behave thus while on an election campaign.

The Left’s job is relatively easy. It’s not in government in Delhi and often plays the role of the opposition with greater effect than the Opposition does. In Bengal, the Congress is not even its main rival, the Trinamul Congress is.

In Kerala, where it is, Karat is not speaking with the “larger picture” in mind. The other day, he said the government was implementing the programmes of the US instead of the common minimum programme agreed with the Left.

Whatever else, Congress central leaders cannot be faulted for forgetting the “larger picture”. At a news conference in Calcutta today, Mukherjee spoke not as state party chief but as defence minister. With one round of elections over and the next phase coming up in three days, he spoke more of the Maoist problem and how it should be solved, of Pakistan, Nepal, Iran and Jammu and Kashmir than of the polls.

Sonia campaigns in Bengal tomorrow and the local party has some expectations. State Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharya said: “We would like Sonia Gandhi to speak about how people in Bengal suffer at the hands of the ruling CPM. We would like to hear her encourage Congress candidates and urge people to vote for them. She should keep the aspirations and demands of the people of Bengal in mind.”

Those words don’t sound as though they hold high expectations. In Delhi, the expectations are even lower. A party leader said the tone of Sonia’s speeches during the campaign elsewhere suggested she would focus on “development”.

“Of course, there may be mild criticism of some of the Left policies, but an attack is unlikely,” the leader said.

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