The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal dwarfs Sonia in tiff of titans

New Delhi, Aug. 20: Atal Bihari Vajpayee re-established his pre-eminence as the National Democratic Alliance’s best bet for the next elections despite ruling for five years and having to grapple with the negatives of incumbency.

Sonia Gandhi gave the impression of still picking her way through the whirligig of politics and, despite the hopes held out by her party’s Shimla conclave, did not emerge as the Opposition’s beacon.

At the end of two days of muck-raking, the debate on the no-confidence motion was less about issues and more about Vajpayee versus Sonia.

Close to midnight on August 19, as the Prime Minister and the leader of Opposition were through with their submissions, it was clear that Election 2004 was shaping into a fight of two leaders.

The Congress’ attempt to corner the government on its “blotted” copybook of governance was feeble, as was the ruling coalition’s claim that the no-confidence debate was a godsend to trumpet its achievements.

Both were lost in the din of personal attacks on Vajpayee and Sonia.

While the Prime Minister was able to ward it off — in spite of an uncharacteristically lacklustre intervention — thanks to the NDA’s unequivocal backing, Sonia was not so lucky.

Outside her own ranks, the CPM and Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD, there was little or no help from the phalanx of heavyweights who shared the front row with her — two former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar and H.D. Deve Gowda and two regional satraps Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Pawar.

The Opposition’s ambivalence on Sonia was best summed up by Ramdas Athawale, a Republican Party of India member, in his ditty. He said: “Atalji aap ke pas hai DMK ka Baalu, hamare paas hai mazboot Laloo (Atalji if you have DMK’s Baalu, we have our strong Laloo).”

He followed it up with: “George Fernandes zayda nahin hai chalu, aap ke liye kaafi hai hamara Laloo (Fernandes is not as clever as he thinks, our Laloo is more than enough for you).”

Laloo Prasad is his answer to Vajpayee, not Sonia. The significance was not lost on the BJP. “Laloo Yadav may not be a serious contender but the point is it did not occur to the speaker to mention Sonia,” said a ruling party leader.

In contrast, whether it was the Trinamul’s Mamata Banerjee or the Telugu Desam’s Yerran Naidu or the Shiv Sena’s Chandrakant Khaire or the Samata’s Prabhunath Singh, the refrain was how great a Prime Minister Vajpayee was.

Observers believe the principal reason Vajpayee managed to tower over Sonia was his proven ability to lead a disparate coalition in an era where single-party rule seems a remote possibility.

The Prime Minister underlined this: “Increasingly, people are showing confidence in coalitions. Even the Congress needs allies, but the point is who will these allies be and whether the Congress has changed its attitude. Will it continue to hurt its new friends'”

Five years ago, the same thing was said about the BJP.

Not only did Vajpayee keep his allies with him — even the smarting DMK that was something of an uncertainty — but he also ensured that the Tamil Nadu party’s arch rival Jayalalithaa’s ADMK and the estranged National Conference abstain from voting.

But the flip side is that the BJP’s counterattack was Sonia-centric. Its only defence against the Opposition’s charges on security, foreign policy and economic issues was that it was better than the Congress because it had an abler leader.

The applause Samata Party’s Prabhunath Singh received from BJP members, including senior ministers, when he read from an article which questioned certain “financial deals” Sonia had allegedly transacted before becoming an Indian citizen was confirmation that the assault on her would be personal rather than political.

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