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A Gradual Ascent

Buoyed by the electoral high, Sonia resists the temptation to ambush. The strategy is based more on patience and attrition.

A Gradual Ascent
A Gradual Ascent
"The time to tackle the Centre has not yet come. Let it soften more.... We shall see some exciting times."
—Arjun Singh on the day exit polls predicted a Congress comeback in assembly polls.

THE mood in the Congress and its headquarters at 24, Akbar Road was pretty upbeat, with smiles getting smug even before the results had started pouring in for the four states and one union territory that went to assembly polls last week. Party leaders were exuberant, some big states practically in their pocket, and MPs were looking as only Congressmen can when in scent of power. Kamal Nath, party general secretary, wore a "things are looking up" visage at an informal press briefing on that day. "The nda allies will soon realise that the bjp is like excess baggage they not only have to cart around but pay for as well," he said. Exit polls and field reports from Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu promising a good showing by the Congress and its allies pumped the much-needed adrenaline in partymen.

The feelgood factor and the charged rhetoric is understandable. From the relentless pummelling of the party and its leadership in the last few months, the tide seems to be turning, and for the better. The Congress is savouring its healthier tally—up from nine states and into double figures. This, senior leaders point out, gives the party a pan-India image the bjp is struggling so hard to achieve. Gloats Arjun Singh: "This will put a stop to all this talk of Sonia being sidelined." Congressmen add that after it wins Assam, the Congress will be the only national party that has governments in the north, east, south and west. "How will people who say we're not a national party explain why we're doing well in Assam," asks Salman Khursheed. Clearly the Congress is using this electoral fillip to bolster not just the party's credibility but even Sonia's acceptability quotient.

But the question remains: will the rejuvenated Congress take on the Vajpayee government? The current line of thinking seems to be: discredit the government as much as possible, step up the pressure but stop short of pulling it down. Admits Kamal Nath: "We're not interested in toppling the government but we see it becoming a weaker, less credible government." Party insiders say the Congress does not wish to be perceived as a destabiliser of governments and would even go the extra mile to prove it's not interested in pulling Vajpayee down. "Our first target must be to revive UP and Bihar. Without this, knocking on the doors of the government in Delhi means nothing," asserts Khursheed.

Opinion, though, seems to be divided within the party. One section of Congressmen believe that the party should capitalise on its poll results by stepping up the attack on the government, but not pulling it down. This, they believe, could be done by highlighting the contradictions within the nda alliance and keeping the Tehelka issue alive through mass contact programmes.

Other partymen, however, advocate striking the iron while it's still hot. According to M/s Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Madhavrao Scindia, the party should make discreet attempts to woo away nda allies like Chandrababu Naidu and cobble together an alternate combination. When queried on such a possibility, Arjun Singh was guarded in his response: "This government will topple on its own. We are patient." Of course, with Arjun Singh, words could mean anything.

While Arjun Singh and Azad are known hawks within the party, it's Scindia's stand that comes as a surprise. In a recent interview, he indicated that the party was not averse to joining hands with any liberal, democratic and secular party if the possibility of a non-bjp alternative emerged. On the face of it, there's nothing new in this statement. "At Bangalore, the Congress indicated it wasn't averse to forming alliances. You've to see in what context this was said," says a party general secretary. What's of interest is that Sonia's aides claim that even if the government falls, the Congress chief would prefer to go to the polls than prop up another rag-tag coalition where she will be at the mercy of her allies. Allies who might press upon her to throw up an alternative prime ministerial candidate or offer outside support.

A change in leadership, of course, is a strict no-no. Says Khursheed: "This is a pipe dream someone may have. But at the same time outside support by the Congress has not been a very pleasant experience which is why Congress leaders say that this time they won't keep out."

The sweetness of the poll result this time lies not so much in the well-expected triumphs, but in the bjp's perceived drubbing. "The importance of these elections is less in the fact of Congress victories than in the fact that the bjp will emerge as a non-entity in all the five states," says Mani Shankar Aiyer.

Something that the bjp says it had anticipated. "From 1984 to 1989, Rajiv Gandhi did not win one assembly election or byelection. How are these elections a referendum for the Centre?" asks Pramod Mahajan, parliamentary affairs minister.

The Congress does not agree. "Why should it not be a referendum for the Centre? Did the PM and home minister not go and campaign?" questions Congress general-secretary Ambika Soni. In fact, say some Congressmen, at a rally in Bangalore on the eve of the election campaign, it was the PM himself who said that these elections were a referendum on the nda government. Later, however, he denied it.

What tempers the Congressmen's joy a bit is the fear that apart from rhetoric, the party may be able to do little else to capitalise on the assembly results. One reason being that there are still two months to go before Parliament reconvenes for the monsoon session in July. "It would be difficult to sustain the momentum for so long," admits a party MP. This is one reason why MPs like Mani Shankar Aiyer were pushing for a three-day Parliament session from May 14 so that the party could have faced the treasury benches flush with its state-level victories. And this is precisely what the government had anticipated when it used the prime minister's visit to Malaysia as an excuse to reject this demand.

Congressmen claim that Sonia has not forgotten the last day of the budget session where she "was goaded into attacking the prime minister". Although it's early days yet, the next session promises to be an equally stormy one. Aiyer is holding political training camps for MPs to raise various issues in Parliament. Says Arjun Singh ominously: "We'll be aggressive in Parliament."

Not only that, at a dinner held at Ghulam Nabi Azad's house last month, the party's dirty tricks department was also given a go-ahead. Sadly for them, perhaps, the nda's dirty tricks department is as efficient. After all, wasn't the government quick enough to unleash a barrage of corruption charges against Sonia and Congressmen post the Tehelka episodes? "The government was so desperate that it even took Subramanian Swamy seriously.And then it stoked corruption cases against V. George and Ajit Jogi," points out a cwc member.

Armed with these poll results, the Congress will be ready to give as good as it gets. Apart from the statistical high, what also surprised Congressmen were the large crowds at their rallies. "Even in traditionally non-Congress bastions in Assam, there were big crowds. Can you imagine the PM's rally drew only 2,000 people? That must be a record of sorts," gloats Nath. Even West Bengal is being passed off as a win-win situation for the Congress. "The fight there was between an ally at the state (Trinamul) and an ally at the Centre (Left). The Congress wins either way," says a party MP.

The morale's up, but whether this leads to anything more than tough posturing remains to be seen. Politics, after all, is not fought on rhetoric alone.

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