Friday, May 23, 2008

Can UPA count this man in?

As guests sat down to dinner at the Prime Minister’s reception for UPA allies, chairperson Sonia Gandhi must have been tempted to think of prospective new allies in the offing, and guess who could trump the Samajwadi Party, the UPA’s newest friend? Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the JD( U). The last few weeks have seen arenewed and forceful attempt to bring the Congress and JD( U) on the negotiating table. Congress leader in- charge of Bihar, Digvijay Singh, has met party president Sharad Yadav twice recently, but the ice had already been broken after meetings between party president Sonia Gandhi and Kumar, say party sources. It is avoracious Sonia who is building up an appetite for new allies, from Mamata Banerjee in Bengal to Nitish Kumar in Bihar. And Gandhi is operating within an astute political doctrine and strategy —aruthless review of present allies, their usefulness in state politics, and abroader secular alliance ranged against the BJP. The new alignment in Bihar has sent convention scattering with the prospect of new odds, bargains, contingency, and eventuality. It has thrown the warring Yadavs, the RJD’s Lalu Prasad and SP’s Mulayam Yadav, into each other’s arms; they are desperately wooing Sharad Yadav with the trophy of aconsolidated Yadav votebank
The ice has been broken by Sonia and Nitish
and alarger coalition platform. On the other side, aresolute Congress believes it has to oust Lalu to regain its status in Bihar, and aCongress- JD( U)- Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP combine is adream- team for the job. The new secular alliance could not only break Lalu’s invincible Yadav- Muslim combine and woo the minorities on its side; the upper castes could be persuaded to leave the BJP too, and together with the extreme backward castes (EBCs), Dalits and non- OBCs, it could become awinning combine in caste- ridden Bihar. So, how will the Congress break the news to Lalu, who has been asteadfast ally? “The Congress believes Lalu has gained more from the alliance and is determined to let realpolitik decide the course,” says an insider. “There can also be a larger secular alliance at the Centre which could have both Lalu and Nitish. Lalu will have to concede space to others.” Meanwhile, the JD( U) has already made its displeasure with the BJP known —the most recent fracas over the sharing of seats in Karnataka saw astung JD( U) walking out and going it alone. As the JD( U)’ schief negotiator points out, “The BJP was arrogant despite knowing that most of its people were from the Dal, not the RSS. We have a common Lingayat base and had we got together, the BJP would have won. Now we have shown we are not irrelevant by smashing the BJP’s chances of getting an absolute majority. The JD( U) can impact in 20- 22 seats.” In Bihar, if Nitish is not inviting the BJP’s ire by effecting a Cabinet reshuffle without consulting the party, he has distanced himself from the BJP’s communal image by raising the demand for reservation for Dalit Muslims, launching a10- point welfare programme for minorities and reopening the infamous Bhagalpur riot cases of 1989 which had claimed athousand lives. In one swoop he has also dealt ablow to Lalu's claim as a “Muslim messiah”. Lalu has retaliated by stoking dissent in the JD( U), backing rebels like Arun Kumar and Upendra Kushwaha; the latter floated aparallel state unit accusing Nitish of ignoring Dalits and backwards. But as a party source says, “The success of the new alliance will depend on whether Nitish can split the RJD or create alarger secular alliance with several other restive allies of the BJP. But the Congress and Nitish are already planning for 2009.”