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Indian politics’ Clown Prince turns joke on ruling party

NEW DELHI, March 21 — For five years, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has been an indispensable coalition ally of the Congress-led government in New Delhi. His folksy humour, for instance, was used to lethal effect in the debate for last year's confidence vote over the nuclear deal with the United States that nearly caused the collapse of the Manmohan Singh government.
Now the man they call the Clown Prince of Indian politics has turned the joke on the Congress Party.
Lalu Prasad, who heads the Rashtriya Janata Dal, this week cut a deal with a rival on his home turf of Bihar state. That has not only left the party of independence angry and embarrassed, but also concerned about keeping its grip on power.
The agreement brokered with his Cabinet colleague Ram Vilas Paswan means the Dal would contest 25 of Bihar's 40 parliamentary seats, while Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party would fight in 12.
For the Congress — which won three of the four seats it contested from Bihar in the last polls — the deal left just three seats uncontested by its partners. It wanted at least six.
The unexpected development shocked the Congress. It underscores how political ambition is superseding loyalty as parties jockey for influence in the days before poll results start coming in on May 13.
Many regional leaders, including Lalu Prasad, believe a fragmented result could land one of them a shot at being prime minister.
“This is a huge setback for Congress, which has been sitting pretty watching the misfortunes of its chief national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” said political analyst N. Bhaskara Rao.
“Lalu and Paswan gave the Congress a clear message that there was nothing to discuss. This means the party won't have any presence in two very large Indian states.” He was referring to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Two weeks ago, the Hindu nationalist BJP also suffered a stunning setback. The party that rules eastern Orissa state unexpectedly broke away from it. In doing so, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik severed an 11-year-old alliance.
Analysts said disagreements over ticket distribution and Patnaik's calculations about the post-polls scenario led to the break-up.
Now the Congress is reeling from a similar setback.
“The Patnaik phenomenon is gaining ground,” said Rao.
The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, expects to get 150 of its own MPs into the 543-seat Lower House of Parliament, according to internal party projections.
It expects alliance partners to bring in the rest and thus take the coalition past the 272 required for a majority.
For that strategy to succeed, however, it needs a decent showing in the vote-rich Hindi-speaking heartland states such as Bihar and next-door Uttar Pradesh (UP).
UP, as India's largest state is called, sends 80 MPs to Parliament. But there too its regional partner, the Samajwadi or Socialist Party, has shut Congress out after disagreements over how many tickets will be allotted to the national party.
In the end, the Socialists unilaterally announced that they would field candidates for 75 of the 80 seats, leaving just five for Congress.
Lalu Prasad has insisted that he will “stand like a rock” behind the Congress president.
But with their principal allies in the two states having turned on them, the Congress has said it will field candidates for 20 of Bihar's parliamentary seats.
It is also flirting with Lalu Prasad's estranged brother-in-law, an MP who was not given a ticket this time by him.
The Congress also plans to turn the contest in Uttar Pradesh into a multi-pronged one by fighting more seats, thus cutting into the Socialists' vote bank and possibly weakening them.
An adviser to BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani says he is certain that the Congress, despite little signs of an anti- incumbency sentiment, will be unable to retain power. “You are beginning to see the unravelling of their grand compact,” he said. “The BJP may have its share of problems, but I tell you, the Congress is set for worse trouble.” — Straits Times


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