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Cong pats ‘impeccable’ Naveen

(From top) Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee

New Delhi, May 8: Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has rated Naveen Patnaik ahead of Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee in the secularism stakes, setting off a buzz about the Biju Janata Dal chief figuring prominently in the Congress’s post-poll calculations.

Digvijaya said his party found the Odisha chief minister’s commitment to secularism “impeccable”. Replying to a question, he placed the secular credentials of Naveen, Nitish and Mamata in that order of preference.

“Naveenbabu had the foresight to distance (his party) from the BJP even before the Assembly polls, something Nitish Kumar missed doing and (for which he is) now paying a price,” the All India Congress Committee general secretary told a TV channel.

“Mamata Banerjee too has secular credentials but in the past, she had joined the BJP at the national level.”

Digvijaya’s remarks have come at a time his party is trying to formulate its post-poll strategy, having assessed that the Congress and its allies are unlikely to emerge as the largest group in the Lok Sabha.

Rahul Gandhi is believed to favour sitting in the Opposition, but a significant lobby within the party prefers a “give and take” with non-NDA parties if the BJP-led alliance fails to muster the numbers to form the government.

Senior party leaders such as Sonia Gandhi aide Ahmed Patel, foreign minister Salman Khurshid and Digvijaya have gone on record saying a coalition of “like-minded parties” may be needed to keep “communal forces at bay”.

While Congress circles describe the BJP, Shiv sena and the Akali Dal as “communal”, there is no unanimity over who the “like-minded parties” are.

To some, this group includes regional rivals such as the Left parties and Mamata in Bengal, the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the YSR Congress in Seemandhra and Telangana.

When Digvijaya’s reaction was sought on CPI leader A.B. Bardhan’s reported comment that the Left would not be averse to Mamata in an anti-BJP front, he said: “I respect a senior leader like Bardhanji; but I’m not sure if the CPM would accept such a possibility and Mamata herself would entertain it.”

In this context, his comments on Naveen have led to speculation that if the Congress finds itself restricted to just about 100 seats, it might consider backing Naveen to head a non-NDA coalition.

If that happens, it will mark the revival of an old bond between the Gandhis and the Patnaiks.

Although Naveen has been staunchly anti-Congress during his political career, his father Biju Patnaik was a close associate of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Biju had joined the Congress during the Independence movement and led the party to victory in the 1961 state elections, becoming Odisha’s chief minister. But he left the Congress in 1970 when the Emergency was imposed, and was jailed by Indira.

During that time, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are said to have run into Naveen at a social event and sympathised with the Patnaiks.

In the TV interview, asked to comment on Rahul Gandhi’s remark that the Congress would not support “any front”, Digvijaya had first justified it saying: “Can the tail wag the body?”

But subsequently, he cited how this election was a “crucial contest” between “two ideologies” that required like-minded parties to come together.

Digvijaya was harsh on the Samajwadi Party and claimed that the Muzaffarnagar violence would not have taken place had the Akhilesh Yadav government been vigilant and attentive.

“Sometimes I wonder if there is any tacit understanding between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party,” he said.

He conceded that the UPA and the Congress leadership had failed to advertise their achievements satisfactorily. “Our communication, or rather the lack of it, has been our biggest failure.”