The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Secular swipe after Bihar slight

New Delhi, Nov. 25: In her first response to the Bihar poll debacle, Congress president Sonia Gandhi today said the results were a “disappointment” for her party.

Sonia, the chairperson of the UPA, also made an indirect swipe at her warring allies ' Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan ' saying the verdict was a “signal for secular forces to remain united to more effectively propagate the principles of equity, democracy and development”.

“The Congress faces a big challenge, but in this challenge lie many opportunities for strengthening the party,” she told the general body meeting of the Congress parliamentary party this morning, which was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Sonia, however, did not say what these “opportunities” were.

Asked if it was a veiled suggestion that the Congress must chart a course independent of Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), sources maintained a firm “no”.

“What she possibly meant was that the five-year interregnum between now and the next Assembly election and even the next Lok Sabha election should be used by the Congress to rev up the organisation and build a state leadership so that we are in a better position to bargain with our allies,” a source said.

The sources stressed that the dominant view within the party was that with the RJD being one of the principal crutches for the UPA coalition, the Congress should do nothing to rile Lalu Prasad.

But a section of the Congress ' especially upper-caste leaders ' said in private that the time was ripe to distance it from the RJD and try and regain the support of the Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs.

Sonia said the next big task on hand was gearing up for the string of Assembly polls due in 2006 ' in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala. The Congress rules in three of these states ' Assam, Pondicherry and Kerala ' while it is part of the anti-ADMK front led by the DMK in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

Sources said a “realistic” endeavour would be to wrest Tamil Nadu, keep Assam and Pondicherry and Kerala and put up a fight in the Left-ruled Bengal.

The AICC plenary in Hyderabad on January 20, 21 and 22 would “provide an occasion for imparting a new momentum to our organisation”, the Congress chief said.

Attacking the NDA for disrupting the first two days of the winter session of Parliament, in keeping with its “track record”, Sonia said the Congress was ready for a debate on the Volcker report, but the Opposition was “simply not interested”.

She emphatically denied the Congress’s involvement in the Iraq oil-for-food scam. But, she added, action would be taken against “anyone who may have misused the party’s name for personal gain” if the “probe findings so warranted”.

The Congress leader rejected the “so-called Mitrokhin disclosures” outright on which the NDA has demanded a separate discussion.

Criticising the BJP for accusing the Congress of “betraying the interest of the country”, she said: “Our leaders have lived, worked and died for the country. It has been national interest that has driven our domestic and foreign policies and it will continue to do so.”

To underscore her point, Sonia spoke of the Iran nuclear issue and countered the Left’s viewpoint of the Centre being “soft” on the US and “harsh” on Iran. “We are also aware of our traditional ties with Iran. I am sure that our government will continue to work for a just and fair solution.”

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