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Isolated Lalu softens in seat stand-off

Patna/New Delhi, March 4: Lalu Prasad today appeared to be blinking first in the seat stand-off with the Congress amid strong indications that negotiations had been reopened to find a middle path.

The RJD chief had so far maintained an adamant public posture of going thus far and no further in striking a deal with the Congress. He has been firm on offering 11 of Bihar’s 40 seats to the Congress and one to the NCP. The Congress in turn has held its ground, saying it wants a greater share and more winnable seats. Sources in the party said that Rahul Gandhi, considered a tough negotiator, was adamant that an alliance with the RJD would only be reached on the Congress’s terms, and not Lalu’s.

Lalu today told The Telegraph in Patna he didn’t want the talks to fall through because of just one seat.

“I have offered 11 seats to the Congress and one to the NCP. Talks are on and I will not break the alliance for just one seat. If needed, I will give them one more seat,” the RJD chief said.

Informed sources said the Congress could be given two more seats, including Bettiah in West Champaran. Besides, a couple of seats already allotted may be interchanged. For example, Jamui had been given to the Congress but now that state party chief Ashok Choudhary has been advised not to contest, it may be swapped for either Samastipur or Gaya.

But even this isn’t what the Congress had been asking for — the party wants Madhubani and East Champaran (Motihari). While Shakeel Ahmed is a contender from Madhubani, Akhilesh Singh wants Motihari.

Without these seats, the Congress will have to make a huge compromise. But a section in the party appeared reconciled to the truncated formula as negotiations with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) too have not advanced satisfactorily.

Nitish today firmly ruled out any talk of an alliance with the Congress. “Sawal paida nahin hota hai, The question does not arise. It’s baseless speculation,” the chief minister said in Patna.

Congress sources said the choices before the party were diminishing. Lalu, they said, is waiting for the model of code of conduct to come into force as that would mean special status to Bihar — Nitish’s condition for an alliance — would have to wait. The Congress then will be left only with Lalu’s offer.

RJD sources, who didn’t want to speak on record as they were not authorised to do so, said that initially in the morning today, Lalu had informed Ahmed Patel, the political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, that he would go no further. “However, by evening there was a growing realisation that after his conviction in the fodder scam, Laluji had become isolated. The Congress was our only hope to retain any connect with national politics. Laluji thought that a couple of more seats would be worth sacrificing for this cause,” a senior RJD leader said.

He added that by evening, Lalu was in “direct talks” with C.P. Joshi, who handles Bihar for the Congress.

During the day today, Lalu met Kerala Governor Nikhil Kumar, who is also interested in contesting the Lok Sabha elections. Lalu is understood to have offered him two choices — Aurangabad and Karakat.


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