The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lalu’s most wanted, more than PM
The Up Poll Boiler

New Delhi, April 14: Lalu Prasad is not a Congressman but he’s on the party’s election posters in Uttar Pradesh — the only national leader to share space with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

“Apart from the Gandhis, he is the only other crowd-puller the UPA has,” said Ajit Tomar, the Congress’s Ghaziabad district general secretary, asked about Lalu Prasad’s face staring out of publicity material at Sonia’s rally on Wednesday.

No other central leader — not even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — is in demand to campaign for Congress candidates. Two phases of polling are over and Singh is yet to address a rally in the state. He will do so tomorrow in Pilibhit, which has a strong Sikh presence and is Maneka Gandhi’s Lok Sabha seat.

Although the economist Prime Minister should have been a draw with the “thinking” urban voters in Kanpur and Meerut, which have already voted, he did not campaign in the cities.

“The reason is he is not particularly charismatic nor a great speaker. Besides, what does he have to speak of on behalf of the government'” a source asked.

With inflation an issue in the cities and the state government blaming the Centre for it, sources said they feared Singh’s appearance would remind the voters of inflation.

“The buzz is that a great economist like him has not been able to rein in prices. Even though Mulayam Singh Yadav is fighting anti-incumbency on other fronts, on price rise he somehow convinced people that his government could do nothing because of the Centre’s policies,” a source said.

Arjun Singh, who is well known in these parts and has canvassed in the state in the past, is the only other central minister who could have campaigned. But his immobility was an impediment. Besides, the state Congress was against roping him in because he is linked with the OBC quota in higher education.

The Congress has not brought up the quota during the campaign though OBC leaders like AICC general secretary Ramesh Naresh Yadav wanted it to. But Sonia and Rahul decided against touching such “thorny” matters because they would then have to spell out their stand.

“They would have risked annoying either the upper castes or the backward castes. It was a no-choice situation,” a source said. The input from the state leaders was that the OBC issue was “indirectly” responsible for reviving the BJP in the urban body elections.

“The upper castes who were gravitating towards the Congress because of the Gandhi family suddenly felt that it would not protect their interests and the BJP was a safer bet,” said Harikesh Bahadur, a member of the Congress Working Committee.

When Rahul was asked by reporters to clarify his position during a roadshow in Kanpur, he evaded an answer. He simply referred to an aborted protest against him by the Youths for Equality, an anti-quota forum, and said he was willing to meet the IIT students who were part of this forum.

Sonia has in her speeches focused on the Centre’s social sector initiatives like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Urban Renewal Mission, which, in the words of a Uttar Pradesh office-bearer, are “caste- and religion-neutral and pro-poor in a general sense”.

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