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Pawar and others add to loser Cong’s agony

Dec. 23: The Congress began to feel the heat from its allies within hours of Narendra Modi’s triumphant return.

The first source of worry was the Sharad Pawar-Bal Thackeray meeting in Mumbai today and while the two leaders were believed to have discussed Narayan Rane’s problems with chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, it was enough to unsettle Congress leaders in Delhi.

Pawar’s lunch at “old friend” Thackeray’s home has fuelled talk of a Nationalist Congress Party-Shiv Sena alliance. Speculation that the first one-on-one between the two leaders at Matoshree, Thackeray’s home, in a decade wasn’t about “friendship” alone grew when a Sena leader spoke of “something dramatic around New Year”.

Rane, who crossed to the Congress from the Sena, is said to have offered to resign when he met Margaret Alva, the general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, on Friday.

“Pawar can play a crucial role in stopping Rane by refusing to accept him as a possible chief minister in the coalition or denying him entry into the NCP. That is a favour he can extend to his old friend (Thackeray) any time in return for support on other issues,” a Sena leader said.

There is also speculation about Rane teaming up with Raj Thackeray, though he himself has denied such a move.

Rane’s problems have come at a time when the Congress has feedback suggesting that its stock is falling in the state. A defeat in Maharashtra, the only major western state it holds, will diminish the party’s national profile.

Publicly, Pawar tried to reassure the Congress by ruling out a mid-term election and saying the Gujarat results would lead to “greater cohesion and stability” in Delhi.

But the NCP chief wasn’t the only one worrying the Congress today. Ram Vilas Paswan, the Lok Janshakti Party boss and Union minister of steel and chemicals, gave the Congress some “well-meaning” advice, saying the party should nurture state leaders rather than “depend entirely on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi” to deliver the goods.

The CPM, which has kept the Centre on the edge over the nuke deal, said communal forces (Narendra Modi and the VHP) couldn’t be countered through elections alone.

One worry for the Congress was that the party could be turfed out of the “secular” space by the likes of the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, parties that had a better record of combating the BJP in their states.

The second problem was the attempt by the BSP to court the Dalits and weaker sections, groups traditionally eyed by the Congress. The figures of the Gujarat results, which showed that the BSP split votes that could have gone to the Congress, underlined the threat.

Congress sources said the increase in the allies’ influence could be gauged from the budget and the next step on the nuclear deal.

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