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Sonia Gandhi keeps poker face

Author: Shahzad Raza
Publication: The Friday Times
Date: February 10, 2014
URL: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/sonia-gandhi-keeps-poker-face/

The Congress leader has two cards up her sleeve

In the run-up to the Indian elections scheduled in April, ties with Pakistan do not feature significantly in the election campaigns of the two major political parties.

The popularity of the ruling Congress party is declining fast against the controversial BJP firebrand Narendra Modi. Modi is having whirlwind tours across the country attracting massive crowds. An official of Indian External Affairs ministry claimed such crowds were last seen when Indra Gandhi dominated the fray in 1980s. But neither him nor Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have resorted to Pakistan-bashing.

“It is a pleasant change in the attitude of the Indian leadership. The reason may not be a sudden likeness for Pakistan. They are just stuck in whole lot of domestic issues,” said senior Indian journalist Sheila Bhatt.

Analysts in New Delhi believe a victory of the BJP or Modi would augur well for bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. Modi will try to go an extra mile to develop goodwill with a Muslim neighbor.
Modi will go an extra mile to develop goodwill with a Muslim neighbor

On count of developing better ties with Pakistan, the Congress leadership fell short of expectations. The Mumbai terrorist attacks eclipsed all peace efforts and Congress preferred not to make any unpopular decision vis-à-vis Pakistan in the final years of its rule.

Former President Asif Ali Zardari’s peace overtures to India received a cold response. The election manifestos of BJP and Congress make no specific mention of Pakistan. They generally talk about developing good relations with neighbors.

Indian Forign Minister Salman Khurshid said India was ready to discuss with Pakistan every outstanding issues including Jammu and Kashmir. This resolve has never become practical. He did not say whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would visit Pakistan before the general elections.

The Indian establishment believes such a visit would be a waste of time since Pakistan would not take Singh seriously a month before his tenure ends.

Secondly, the Indian prime minister himself would avoid any negative publicity just before the general elections.

Foreign secretary Sujhata Singh said India had solid evidence that terror networks were still operating from Pakistan to carry out terrorism inside India or against Indian interests.

Perhaps the most interesting character to recently emerge on the Indian political scene is Arvind Kejeriwal, the chief minister of New Delhi. He defeated senior politician Sheila Dixit in what many believe are the most unprecedented election results in Indian history.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Mr Kejeriwal was short of the required seats to form government. The Congress volunteered to help him form a coalition. He did, but has so far acted against the expectations of the Congress.

Recently, Mr Kejeriwal issued a list of “most corrupt politicians” that included the name of Rahul Gandhi. The Congress was expecting that the AAP would be its ally in the general elections. That is not happening at all. Instead, the APP is trying to end the political career of several veteran Congress candidates.

“The AAP will not be able to secure a significant win. However, it will play the role of big spoiler. And the Congress might be its worst victim,” said veteran journalist C Mohanraja.

In a conversation with me at his office, Mr Kejeriwal said he would root out corruption from Indian politics, though he failed to spell out specific plan and strategies on how would go ahead with such an ambitious agenda.

Critics said several of his initiatives were impractical. For instance, he announced to cut the power bills of the residents of New Delhi by 50 percent. The state government had no clue where it would fill the deficit from. Secondly, he came under strong criticism for launching street protest against New Delhi police. Congress leaders called him an “anarchist”.

Opinion polls show the BJP candidate, Narendra Modi, is taking a remarkable lead against Rahul Gandhi.

Asked why the Congress did not announce its prime ministerial candidate, a senior official said it was a smart move by Sonia Gandhi that would secure the political interests of the Gandhi dynasty.

“If Congress loses, then entire party would share the blame. And if, somehow, it wins the elections, Rahul Gandhi is certainly going to be the prime minister,” he explained.

Ms Gandhi is holding two cards close to her chest. One is, of course, Rahul Gandhi, to be used if things go well. The second, and probably the trump card, is her daughter Priyanka Gandhi.

Depending on the election results, Ms Gandhi may field the daughter to cobble a coalition government.

Whatever the case may be, political pundits in India are convinced it is going to be yet another hung Parliament with a lot of give and take and an excruciating process of political wheeling and dealing.

- Shahzhad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist

- Twitter: @Shahzadrez


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