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‘Concerned’ Congress plays safe

New Delhi, March 14: Congress leaders’ swift expressions of concern at the Nandigram firing today couldn’t hide their party’s dilemma in its dealings with the CPM.

Sonia Gandhi expressed “deep” concern, told the Bengal Congress to keep the central party updated and advised state leaders to help the injured.

Defence minister and Bengal Congress president Pranab Mukherjee sought a detailed account from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee over the phone and gently told him to avoid using “force” in such situations.

His cabinet colleague from Bengal, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, wrote to the chief minister saying the firing would only “provoke” the tension.

He advised Bhattacharjee to “personally intervene in the matter without assigning it to any other person, either from the government or from the party”.

But a central minister’s reply to a question summed up the Congress’s constraints.

Asked if Sonia would fly to Nandigram like she had to Orissa’s Kalinga Nagar, where police firing had killed tribals protesting land acquisition in January 2006, he said: “Do you want us to sacrifice our government so soon'”

Das Munshi, reminded of the Prime Minister’s lavish praise of Bhattacharjee last week, said: “The PM of the country… has to take everyone along with him. If the Bengal CM is thinking of industrial development after 30 years of stagnancy, isn’t that a reason to be satisfied'”

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said they had “no idea” if Manmohan Singh had spoken to Bhattacharjee today.

If yesterday’s rumpus by Left MPs in the House had left the Congress shocked and disgusted, Nandigram reinforced its feeling of helplessness.

Sources said though Bhattacharjee had briefed Mukherjee and home minister Shivraj Patil, he hadn’t been forthcoming with the other ministers from Bengal.

Das Munshi’s letter said that for the past four days, he had been trying in vain to speak to the chief minister about a reported build-up in Nandigram.

Today, he got his information from Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress MPs, as well as district Congress workers.

Since the reports couldn’t be verified — Mamata alleged that an entire TV crew had been “abducted” and a local Congressman spoke of 22 killed, 500 hit by bullets and 200 asphyxiated — Das Munshi avoided figures at his media briefing.

He wouldn’t react to the CPM’s allegation of Naxalites and “overground” political opponents engineering the violence.

The I&B minister said the state units had been given the leeway to take on the ruling parties whichever way they wanted to, especially in Left-ruled Kerala, Tripura and Bengal. He rejected charges of “double standards”.

“We have no special arrangement to say something (about the Left) here (in Delhi) and (something different) there (in Bengal). We have taken a strong stand on Singur and Nandigram and in some cases, have worked in tandem with the Trinamul Congress.”

Congress sources ruled out any central leader hitching himself to the Mamata bandwagon right away.

They said the job at hand was to see the budget session through without spats between the allies. To ensure that, there was “no way” the Congress in Delhi would get ballistic on Nandigram and Singur.

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