The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Friday Group in frying pan

New Delhi, March 12: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's intervention helped defuse the Friday fury in Jharkhand but a group named after the day has come under the scanner for failing to steer the party away from the mess in Ranchi and elsewhere.

The Friday Group, made of Congress war horses, was expected to alert Sonia Gandhi and the rest of the leadership to the folly of backing a Shibu Soren government without having the requisite numbers.

Led by Sonia, the group meets the Prime Minister at his official residence every Friday to coordinate between the party and the government and take stock of the political situation.

The permanent members of the group are Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, human resource minister Arjun Singh and parliamentary affairs minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Depending on the situation and the agenda, at times, other senior ministers and party leaders are also invited to the meeting.

Apart from this group, senior party leader M.L. Fotedar, water resources minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi and Margaret Alva have also drawn flak for the mess in which the Congress has landed.

The Arjun Singh-Fotedar duo was in charge of Bihar ' now under central rule ' and Jharkhand while Alva and Das Munshi handled Goa, which has also fallen under Delhi rule.

The role ' or lack of it, as some Congress leaders claim ' played by the Friday Group in Jharkhand has begun drawing sniper fire in the party. 'In Jharkhand, the Congress managers made two cardinal mistakes in alienating Laloo Prasad Yadav's RJD pre-poll and managing numbers post-poll,' a Congress leader said.

Whispers are also rife in the party that once the war began to turn dirty, Soren was left to fend for himself ' both politically as well as financially ' which made it impossible for him to match the muscle of the BJP-led alliance.

But what could hurt the veterans more is the charge that they did little to limit the damage and shield the party once the situation started spinning out of control.

When the NDA paraded the legislators before the President and when Arjun Munda ' who was sworn in chief minister today ' moved the Supreme Court, all the Soren government was advised to do was recommend bringing forward the trust vote by six days.

Packed with many a battled-scarred veteran, the Friday Group should have foreseen the fiasco and asked the party to retreat and cut its losses much before the Prime Minister stepped in and did exactly that, said a middle-level Congress leader.

'If knives are not exactly out for them, it is because almost all top leaders have contributed to the fiasco,' the politician said, adding that among the senior leaders, only Ambika Soni seems to have emerged unscathed.

Soni has been made chief spokesperson of the party on a week her rival Ahmed Patel, counted among the closest aides of Sonia, came under attack from a regional camp.

'We had an iron Patel (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel). Now we have an aluminium Patel,' said K. Muraleedharan, the son of wounded Kerala veteran K. Karunakaran, referring to Ahmed Patel. Karunakaran is now busy stoking dissidence in the state.

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