Inflation and Muslim anger worry Congress

By Liz Mathew, IANS

New Delhi : Congress president Sonia Gandhi says she is ready for general elections. But state units feel that rising prices of essential goods and Muslim fury over the government’s perceived pro-US tilt may hit the party’s electoral fortunes.

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Party sources say that Gandhi is now getting not-so-favourable responses from many state units as well as some coalition partners about the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) prospects in the event of early elections.

“We have informed the (party) president that we should try to avoid an immediate election and that we cannot go to the people over the nuclear issue,” a senior party leader from a southern state who met Gandhi this week told IANS.

On Sunday, Gandhi indicated her party’s readiness for a fresh poll by attacking critics of the India-US nuclear deal as opponents of the country’s development. Her remarks were widely seen as Congress readiness for early elections to the Lok Sabha.

A few days earlier, Gandhi had said in so many words that the Congress was ready for an electoral battle.

But a section of Congress leaders think differently.

Congress sources said leaders of state units are informing Gandhi that the party might get hit in Muslim areas in an early election, more so if it is felt that these are taking place over the nuclear deal.

“Although the nuclear deal is not a major issue so far among the people, the opposition will make it so. The Congress cannot be seen as a party getting close to the US because anti-US and anti-Bush feeling is strong in many Indian towns,” said a Congress leader from Kerala.

Although only 13 of the 543 elected Lok Sabha seats in the country are Muslim dominated, in scores of constituencies Muslims form a large chunk. Mass tactical voting by the community can doom the Congress if they decide to dump the party.

The Congress leaders also feel that a general election might throw up another hung parliament – a scenario in which the party may again have to take the Left’s support to take office to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power.

“Why should we sacrifice this government and go for elections over some nuclear reactors?” asked one leader.

Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar – two key cabinet ministers – conveyed this view to the Congress president and her colleagues at the fourth meeting of the UPA-Left meet Tuesday.

It is not only the nuclear deal that makes the Congress leaders apprehensive about the party’s prospects. “The exorbitant prices of onions and vegetables are creating a negative wave against the government. It will be a major issue against the government,” warned a Congress general secretary.

He said the anti-incumbency wave even in non-Congress-ruled states may not help the Congress to overcome the Muslim community’s unhappiness over the perceived pro-US tilt in India’s foreign policy and mounting dissatisfaction among the people over rising prices of essential commodities.

Shooting prices of essential commodities have caused widespread disaffection, in both rural and urban areas. The worst hit are the poor who are considered the traditional voters of the Congress.

Many Congress leaders are blaming a section of party leaders for feeding virtual falsehood to the party president about the popularity of the party across the country.

“It is only party leaders who have their ears to the ground feel that it is not right to drag the country into an election now,” said one party leader from the Lok Sabha.