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Why does Sonia play second fiddle to Lalu?

By T V R Shenoy
October 14, 2005 19:50 IST
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For the second time this calendar year the voters of Bihar shall queue up at the voting stations to elect a new Vidhan Sabha.

Polling is due to start on October 18; the Election Commission believes Bihar is so 'sensitive' that it has spread voting for the 243 seats across four phases.

The last phase is well over a month away, November 22 to be precise, with counting to begin only on November 23.

Even so, in my view, we already know the name of one winner: Lalu Prasad Yadav.

No, for unhappy Bihar's sake I hope and pray that he -- or his other self, Rabri Devi -- does not return to power. But he has manoeuvred the Congress into an impossible position.

If the alliance wins, it is all thanks to Lalu Prasad Yadav, should it lose all the blame will lie on Congress shoulders.

After all, it is the Congress, in its aspect as head of the United Progressive Alliance, that has failed to build a 'secular' alliance, isn't it?

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The truth is that there is no chance of Lalu Prasad Yadav's getting a majority. The game is given away by the statistics on the Election Commission web site.

Of the 243 seats in the Vidhan Sabha the Rashtriya Janata Dal is putting up candidates in only 98. It will be 22 short of a majority even if it wins every seat (which is impossible).

Back in February the Congress was wavering between Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad Yadav.

I was present in a panel discussion with Congress General Secretary Ramesh Chennithala, where he boasted that it was actually a well-crafted strategy. It would, he claimed, prevent the consolidation of the anti-Rashtriya Janata Dal forces. Chennithala brushed away the minor fact that it could also divide the anti-BJP forces!

Eight months on, Lalu Prasad Yadav has cut off that escape route for the Congress. He has wrested it to his own side, giving it 24 seats to contest.

Does that mean everyone has deserted Ram Vilas Paswan? Not a bit of it, this is Bihar we are talking about!

Political fragmentation is right up there in the Kerala class. I don't have a scorecard to hand just now but this is roughly how it stands:

The Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress have an alliance (along with several minor groups).

The CPI and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party are standing together.

The Samajwadi Party (whose base is neighbouring Uttar Pradesh) has tied up with the CPI-ML -- which last should not be confused with the CPI-M.

And then there is a whole slew of minor parties, including one called the Muslim League Kerala State Committee!

After all that, it seems almost anticlimactic to report that the BJP and the Janata Dal-United have not split up their decade-old alliance...

I fear the result is going to be much what it was in March, a confusing mix of MLAs with conflicting agenda. Irrespective of whether the chief minister is Nitish Kumar or Rabri Devi, the government will be as ineffective as it is unstable.

Which brings me back to where I started, Lalu Prasad Yadav and his strategy. I can understand why the Rashtriya Janata Dal president is uneasy, but why has the Congress fallen for it?

Why has Sonia Gandhi forced her party to play second fiddle?

Why is a party that was ruling Bihar at the beginning of 1990 now reduced to contesting just 10 per cent of the seats?

The story of the United Progressive Alliance is a story of how the senior partner always bends over for the lesser parties.

The Left Front has just over one tenth of the seats in the Lok Sabha; they still get to dominate both economic and foreign policy.

Lalu Prasad Yadav is no longer the charismatic figure of yesteryear; he still gets to call the shots in a major state.

Power is split between the prime minister and the party president; the result is that every Congressman does whatever he wants.

That is the environment which permitted Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh to proclaim a few months ago that Aligarh Muslim University was a 'minority' institution, a decision now slapped down by the judiciary.

Senior Cabinet members admit, privately of course, that there was no discussion on the matter; but the constitutional position is that every minister is collectively responsible for Arjun Singh's folly.

With Dr Manmohan Singh unable to call his ministers to account and Sonia Gandhi too busy to take a call, the Congress is drifting aimlessly.

Sonia Gandhi had an enviable boost in her popularity when she 'renounced' the prime ministership.

But in Bihar today the joke is that the only difference between Sonia Gandhi and Rabri Devi is that the latter stands up to Lalu Prasad Yadav!

I hope the Congress president sits down with her senior colleagues after the Bihar polls to craft a road map for the party. And I hope even more fervently that once the hurly-burly of the election is over Governor Buta Singh gets the boot.

The voters of that unhappy state may have voted for Lalu Prasad Yadav, but surely they don't deserve to have Buta Singh too foisted on them!

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T V R Shenoy