The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Could’ve been worse: Cong
Delhi banks on Bengal

New Delhi, May 11: Last evening, a senior Congress spokesperson told journalists candidly that the party had braced itself for the loss of Kerala and Assam. Tamil Nadu was iffy, Bengal was as good as lost, and Pondicherry would be a “small” consolation prize.

The party was also nervous about Sonia Gandhi’s victory margin in Rae Bareli because of the low turnout.

Twenty-four hours later, the Congress had managed to retain Assam and Pondicherry and recorded its best show in Tamil Nadu in decades, though it lost Kerala to the Left.

Sonia’s win in Rae Bareli by a 4 lakh-plus margin ' reportedly the highest ever by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family ' was the icing on the cake. However, an absolute majority eluded the Congress in Assam.

Digvijay Singh, the general secretary in charge of the state, left for Guwahati with Mohsina Kidwai and Chandan Bagchi. The central observers would preside over the election of the leader of the legislature party, and then begin working to cobble together a majority.

Sources said the Congress would prefer Independents rather than the “fundamentalist” Assam United Democratic Front which might take an “extreme” stand on “illegal” immigration. The Congress has a pre-poll alliance with the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (Mohilary).

Sources said the Congress has yet to decide whether it should be part of the DMK-led government in Tamil Nadu or support it from outside like the Left and the PMK.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summed up the mood by declaring: “These elections are a victory for secular forces and this is victory for the UPA.”

Sonia said the results had refuted the “prophets of doom” in the newspapers who had predicted the UPA and the Congress would “not do well”.

Belying earlier speculation that a Left victory would “destabilise” the Centre, party sources said the outcome would “cement” ties.

“The Bengal chief minister’s appeal on reforms mesmerised the urban middle class. If the chief minister sticks to his reforms agenda, there will be no problems,” a cabinet minister said.

CPM patriarch Jyoti Basu’s declaration that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would be the key link between the Left and the Centre would gladden the Prime Minister. Singh has counted on Bhattacharjee in the past to extricate his government from sticky situations created by the Left, such as the protest over the joint defence exercise with the US in Bengal.

Sources said that while Sonia and the Left would ensure the Centre didn’t go “overboard” with reforms, the reforms agenda would be on course. Sonia would also shuffle the party and create a position for son Rahul, who passed the “test” in Rae Bareli, they added.

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