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Celebration to survival scare in a week
- Spectre of snap polls spooks Cong

New Delhi, Aug. 17: A week is a long time in politics.

Last Saturday, Congress leaders were celebrating the Prime Minister’s challenge to the Left to pull the plug on his government.

As Sonia Gandhi backed Manmohan Singh with measured remarks, the Congress imagined it had “called the Left’s bluff” and shown the comrades their place.

Less than a week on, doubt and anxiety are creeping in as the party grapples with the “credible scenario” of the Left withdrawing support in the next few months.

“We have no clear answers nor a counter strategy,” a Congress source conceded.

He said the party and the government’s best bet was now foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is speaking to the Left leaders. The Prime Minister is expected to lie low.

Nobody in the Congress appears prepared for mid-term polls. “If we have one, the BJP will gain no matter how down-and-out it seems,” said a cabinet minister who continues to work closely with the party.

“The BJP has a trump card — it can tell voters: ‘We were the only ones to successfully run a large coalition for five years’.”

The Congress fears that as its isolation gets underlined, there might be a churning within allies such as the DMK and the Rashtriya Janata Dal who have been on board so far.

The Congress’s immediate objective is, therefore, to try and save the government. If Mukherjee fails to work a thaw with the Left, sources said, Sonia will have to take a call on the key issue: is it worth sacrificing a government over the nuclear deal'

Among the options Congress leaders are speculating on are:

Go slow on operationalising the deal. Don’t pursue the negotiations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA with obvious vigour

Persuade the Prime Minister to make a “substantive” conciliatory gesture towards the CPM and CPI bosses, Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan, to “undo” the effect of his dare

Keep the US off the Left’s radar for a while by deferring the joint military exercises.

Congress leaders are acutely aware that the party’s return to power after nearly 10 years was propelled by issues and perceptions that are the opposite of what the nuclear deal has come to symbolise for many: bountiful energy for nine to 10 per cent growth, proximity to the US and the George Bush-Manmohan coupling.

The Prime Minister is said to have told his confidants that if it weren’t for Bush’s interventions, the deal would not have gone through in Washington.

The dominant view in the Congress is that while the deal offers no political gains, the negatives it brings could damage the party. Despite official declaration of support, the Congress is unlikely to launch a campaign to explain the deal.

“Its only selling point is that it will address our energy needs. But when — 20-25 years from now' So what effect will this have in the next few elections where we may have to explain why so much of rural India still lives in darkness'” a minister of state said.

“Now consider the biggest negative. Bush is a hated figure the world over, and even his closely ally, the UK, will no longer hold a brief for him. So people can ask why the Prime Minister is batting for him.”

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